Sunday, March 28, 2010

Diver Eyes

I've always been fascinated by the diving birds ability to see while swimming under water. Here is a quick view into their eyes.
Humans and mammals have one upper and one lower eyelid, birds on the other hand have a third eyelid, which is called the Nicitating Membrane.
Instead of opening and closing up and down as do our eyelids, the nicitating membrane opens and closes sideways across the eye, it is used to keep their eye's surface moist and clean.
To help see underwater, many diving birds have a special window type area in the center of this membrane, it is like the goggles Michael Phelps would wear while racing for another gold medal, allowing them decent underwater vision.
Another interesting note on these bird eyes, is the size of their pupils, they are tiny, as you look through the following pictures you will see that their eyes are mostly a large iris with a very small pupil in the center.
I would imagine their pupil grows much larger as these birds dive deeper into darker depths of the water column, just as our pupils would do in dim light.
Click on the photos to enlarge, these birds have some awesome eyes.

White-winged Scoter have a beautiful pale blue iris.

Long-tail iris's can be from brown to pink

One of the most incredible eyes in the animal kingdom.

A dark brown iris, changing to a lighter brown with the tiny pupil.

Hooded Merganser.
Golden Eyes, but not Goldeneye.

The Horned Grebe has a two toned iris, red to yellow.

Land birds show a much larger pupil as seen in this
young Great-horned Owl.
Imagine this pupil in the darkest of nights.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

They're Back!

Tom and Marc met me at the boat at 8:30 this morning, I was excited to get out to the islands as today is March 21st.
As we motored closer to the Norwalk Power plant, I mention to my friends that like the Swallows of Capistrano we can almost count on Norwalk's first pair of Ospreys to show up today, with in seconds Tom shouts; There! In front of the tanks!
Sure enough, here is our first osprey of the year right in front of us, he is flying to the southern most nest pole on the point where his mate is awaiting him, we watched him for a while gathering and delivered nesting material. It is always exciting to see the first ospreys of the season.
Every year I find my first Oystercatchers on this same date, and I think I know just where they are, I head on over to Long Beach, a small sand bar island near the power plant, the storm from last weekend has taken most of the top off this island, the grasses at the peak of the island are gone, this was the nesting area for thirty pair of Great Black-backed Gulls for many years, there are only a few birds on the island now with there nesting area destroyed by last weeks wind and waves, I'll hope the island comes back to the way I remember it.
Keep, keep, keep, keep, keep! With that most unmistakeably voice, the oystercatchers are back.
Like clock work, at Long Beach, these carrot billed spark plugs have returned, this is four years in a row, March 21st. My morning is made!
I still have a few more places to check out, I have to get to Goose Island to see if the Double Crested Cormorants are back on their nesting ground, we have seen a number of them already this morning along with a half dozen Great Cormorants, as we make our way to the east side of he the island, I can see black specks dotting the area near the shack, a easy thirty Double Crested Corms claiming this years nesting area, these are the early arrivals as this colony will swell to over eight hundreds birds in the months to come.
We check out Cockenoe Island, the bar that once hosted nesting Piping Plover and Least Terns
is now just a memory after this storm, the sand bar has been cut and reshaped by Mother Nature, there are only a few blades of grass remaining, with little land left above the high tide line. I had to leave and get out of there.
Lets check out the seals, so it's of to Sheffield Island, way before our approach to the haul out areas I see thousands of white dots on the water, Gulls, by the thousands feeding on the microscopic soup of plankton that has risen to the surface, Brant by the hundreds are also enjoying this feast.
In the corner of my eye I notice the dozen or so seals resting on Hidding Rocks, but I'll get to those later, now it time to play with the plankton, I push a five gallon pain below the 44 degree water and sure enough there are tiny little creatures swimming about, I reach for my 20 power microscope, its not here, I left it home, Marc has an magnifying glass, but with the rocking boat we give up trying to figure these guys out. We did note both swimming and plant type plankton.
Over to the seals, looks like twelve or so Harbor and one Gray.
Marc notices something on the shoreline, is that an egret, he asked? Yes! it's our first Great Egret of the year, and then a second egret appears around the corner. Life is changing rapidly out here, we totally forget about the seals and move on
Red-breasted Mergansers are still very numerous as are Long-tail, although the Long-tail numbers are now dropping. Most of the LT are still in basic plumage, but many have, or are in the process of molting into there alternate wear.
We find gulls and brant surface feeding in many different areas around the islands and as we head up the harbor towards the dock there is one last flock feeding in the middle of the harbor west of Calf Pasture Beach. On our way back to the dock we stop and photograph the last few visible Long-tail and one Red-throated Loon.
Before pulling into the dock one more bird passes by, very close to the bow of the boat,
Peregrine Falcon, a great way to end the morning!

They're Back!

and these guys too!

Delivering a sheet of plastic wrap to the nest,
Not Good!

DC Corms setting up their nesting colony on Goose Is.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Norwalks Harbor Seals

I think the most common question I'm asked in the winter is "are there any seals out there?"

The conversation to follow will usually be like this...

A. Sure, there are plenty of seals out there.

Q. Did you see any today?

A. No.

Q. Why not? You said there were seals out there.

A. Well lets see, I was out at high tide, most seals in this area don't haul out of the water until low tide, when many rock outcroppings and reefs become exposed, my guess is that they feed around the higher tides, but now that I think about it, I did see a seal head pop up today around a large flock of Long-tail.

Q. What kind of a seal is a Long-tail, I never heard of them?

A. Well their not a seal species, they're ducks.

Q. Oh, that explains the "flock" thing, I didn't think seals hung out in flocks?

I have actually had this conversation, not everybody knows their duck species, and that's OK it's always fun explaining that Long-tail are birds, and of course that I was out birding the Islands today.

A few quick facts on Harbor Seals. Females can live up to 35 years and the guys up to 25.

They can easily submerge for over ten minutes, and dive over 1000 feet, but on average they only dive for two to three minutes and in less than seventy feet of water.

Males can reach lengths of over six feet and weigh just over three hundred pounds, the ladies are considerably smaller. They eat about five percent of their body weight daily, with most of that being fish and squid. There is no evidence of them eating lobster, though they will raid lobster traps for the lobster bait inside.

Here are a few recent photos from around the islands, again I'm using a long lens and cropping the pictures big time, so as not to disturb them.

Check out how plump this seal is, this one is a lady seal,
and she is very pregnant, her ten month gestation period is about to end.
She won't give birth to her 18-24 lb pup in this area, but further east of us, perhaps Maine and beyond.

When hauled out, seals like their space, notice the separation between these two while sunning themselves on a local rock. This space is too tight for them to share it with the seal in the water.

Disagreements about whose space it is, are common at favorite haul out locations.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


A strange title for a blog, but like 90210 this is also a zip code, in this case it is for San Antonio, Texas.
I received a large envelope in the mail this past Saturday from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, opening it up, I found a good number of bird reports enclosed.
The letter asked that since I had volunteered to be an ambassador for the Great Backyard Bird Count in years past, would I help out with entering data from the mail in reports that they had received.
Aggh! This compressed stack was an inch or so high and not the kind of stuff I normally like to do.
Slowly thumbing through the reports I noted something about the hand writing, these reports were from mostly elementary school students. Perhaps their only method of getting these reports entered was by The United States Postal Service?
I quickly became intrigued by this request and stated sorting out the reports, generic names such as Dove were to be discarded since there are a number of Dove species in the area, I would have no idea which species of Dove they were reporting.
It was quite pleasing, sitting at my computer in Connecticut, looking over the bird report listings for San Antonio, Texas.
Not being a big traveler, and never having been to Texas, a number of these birds were only a drawing in a guide book to me. They were species that I would not expect to see in my home state, this led me to research many of these species, simple just to learn more about them.
So thanks to various reports from youngsters, some of their names being, Miguel, Aaron, Irma, Corey, Ileana, Sabrina, Amber, Joe, Alexandria, Kayla, Oscar and many others, thank you for enlightening me to a part of the world of Texas Birding.
Here is a sampling of Texas birds they reported, all would be considered a rarity in Connecticut.
Inca dove, Common Ground Dove, Great-tailed Grackle, Loggerhead Shrike, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Harris hawk, Black-crested Titmouse, Brewers Blackbird, Olive Sparrow, Rufous Hummingbird, Blacked-chinned Hummingbird, Sedge Wren, Verdin, Rock Wren, Harris Sparrow, Bushtit and the list goes on.
I hope these young birders find a lifetime full of the enjoyment of nature, as I have.
They are the future, the birds are in good hands.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dancing with the Mergs

Before heading home late this afternoon,
I stopped by Burying Hill Beach in Westport
to check out the bird scene.
There were a few Red-breasted Mergansers close to the beach, I quickly notice something very different between two males that were now paired up. They were in a dancing competition for the attention of a nearby lady friend.
The two faced each other and in a well choreographed duet they started the dance.
The moves they made were all in unison, from paddling across the water as fast as they could to dipping their chest below the surface with bills facing the sky, to elongating their necks and bills skyward.
I felt honored to witness this event that lasted a minute at best. Finally the lady chose her guy, and the loser slowly swam off to let the couple be.
All was not lost for second place finisher, for not fifty feet away was another female, alone, he swam up to her and the last I saw of them, they were happily diving below the surface together in search of their next meal.
Enjoy the photos below, showing the various dance steps!
Click on pictures to enlarge.

Bills up as if to say "en guard"

Chest in water, bills agape.

The 50 meter free style?

She doesn't seem impressed?

This duet in two part harmony seems to have caught her attention.

And if that didn't, this did!

Or perhaps this step will!
Gee, what us guys do for you ladies!!!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Glaucous Moments

This past Saturday, I had a noontime buisness meeting in Lordship, Stratford.
This is one of the most incredible birding areas in the State of Connecticut.
After my meeting, I had to at least cruise the seawall by car.
Certainly a handful of species were to be seen offshore in the sound,
Red-breasted Mergs, a loon or two, scaup...
Having only a few moments to spare, I quickly drove down to Long Beach Park, an area that in the past has produced way to many species for me to mention, but I often think about the Snowy, Short and Long-eared plus Barn Owls that I have seen in this area.
This is also an area for some cool gulls in the winter, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls have been known to pop up into this area at a moments notice.
I entered the park, driving past the sumac on the left, that last winter held a Short-eared Owl for a few moments as it passed a pellet, leaving me seconds to photographed it.
Not expecting anything of this sort, I drove on further, where eventually I found a parking space close to the western end of the park.
I pulled in, focused my bins on the sound, hum, rather quiet, drop the bins and looked at the shoreline, fifty or so feet in front of me, checking out the gulls... whats with the big white dude gull smack in front of me, Iceland? No bigger, Glaucous, yeah, thats the guy!
The people in the car next to me were passing out Duchess Fries to the gulls, this was now the hot-spot for gulls on the beach. Not to be outdone (I always have a bag of bread in the van) I slowly hopped out of the van, camera in hand, did a bit of chumming and shot off a few hundred shots.The following photos are original, cropped and than cropped more. These were from when the Duchess fries were being passed out.
Note the Glaucous Gull, it's head upside down, fighting for a piece of fry with a Herring Gull.
Head upside down or not, don't feel bad for this bird, for it is the most dominate gull on this beach.

Gull Fight!

Closer up, white winged gull is the Glaucous

Glaucous's head is upside down,
in dispute with Ring-billed Gull
Click on the pic and zoom in!