The Boys (and Girls) Are Back in Town


Dry conditions have meant fewer birds in spots that I normally visit, but last Sunday there was activity at the San Bernard refuge. A small flotilla of what appeared to be Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) was accompanied by a pair of American Coots (Fulica americana)  and — to my amazement — a single Scaup: the bird with the solid brown head on the right.

The Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) and Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) are easily confused. One field mark is the shape of the head; after much pondering, I decided this one’s head is more round than peakèd, indicating a Greater Scaup. Clicking to enlarge the photo will provide a closer view of these beautiful birds.

The Coots, easily recognizable by their black bodies and white bills, are a common winter bird that sometimes appear at the refuges in great numbers. With a strong front predicted for this coming weekend, I expect to see many more. Other species — Gadwall, Bufflehead, and Pintail — are arriving now, and the unmistakable sound of Sandhill Cranes filled the air as I watched these ducks. The season is turning, indeed.


Comments always are welcome.

65 thoughts on “The Boys (and Girls) Are Back in Town

    1. Mixed flocks are fun. On the other hand, when the Coots arrive by the hundreds, it’s an equally compelling sight! I’ve heard a lot of Sandhill Cranes, but so far have only seen two in flight. I’ll keep looking.

    2. Winged Winter Visitors are a welcome sight to see. On Monday Morning, Nov 7, a large flock of Sandhill Cranes were flying overhead in Seabrook/Johnson Space Center area. I happened to walk outdoors and looked up to see the flock of two to three dozen separate in two, one continuing West, the other returning to the Easterly direction, from which they’d come. It was a lovely morning surprise.

      1. My goodness. That would have been quite a sight. I’ve not yet heard any passing overhead in our area, but now that I know they’re on Galveston Island and San Bernard, I’ll hope to see some there. I have seen and heard a good number of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in the mornings, although there were far fewer last week. The Ospreys, of course, are here in force, and they’re the real chatterboxes!

    1. Winter usually does provide great birding, but at this point it’s spotty. Many of the ponds where birds have been plentiful in the past are dry or nearly so just now. In fact, some refuge areas set aside for hunting in season aren’t yet issuing any permits because of lack of water and birds. Farther south, rain has been more plentiful, and many of our birds may head in that direction.

  1. Glad to see there is at least a bit of water at San Bernard… and Sandhill Cranes – oooh boy! I was afraid they would pass us by altogether, looking for larger expanses of damp soil.

    1. The cranes were in the fields past the reservoir. I walked a good distance on that trail hoping to find them, but I only found two other hikers with the same mission. They’d made it farther than I did, but never saw the birds. I did catch sight of two flying, but from the volume of their calls, there must have been a lot of them ‘out there somewhere.’

    1. I’ve been seeing more brown pelicans, but no white ones yet. It will be interesting to see if they show up with this weekend’s cold front. More rain would be nice, too — like, maybe three or four inches.

    1. They were far enough away that I don’t think they sensed any threat from me, although they did seem to know I was there. Instead of heading for the reeds, they just kept cruising along. It was fun to see them: especially the scaup. I don’t think I’ve seen even a half-dozen of those.

        1. Although it seems in Scotland there’s not much difference. Take a look at the sixth definition here. An Oxford Dictionary reference says ‘scaup’ is a “late 17th century Scots variant of Scots and northern English ‘scalp’, or ‘mussel bed’, a feeding ground of the duck.” Who knew?

  2. The birds are arriving – despite the noise from construction on the title island, early in the morning you can see the tourist ducks/water fowl who are just passing through and will move on seeking more peace and quiet. I was wondering about the duck hunting this year. Enjoyed your fancy fliers

    1. I was surprised to see the teal; they usually pass through earlier in the fall. Maybe these didn’t get the memo. I heard on the Outdoor show recently another common name for them: rice rockets, for their ability to flush and fly as fast as any duck when they lift off from the rice fields. Apparently there are ducks galore farther south, around Baffin Bay. They’re smart; they’ll go where there’s water and food, and we’re a little short on water right now.

      1. Oh, I love the name ‘rice rockets’, had never heard that before but it really creates an image in the mind. We get mostly mallards and the occasional coot over here.

    1. I’m hoping to find some of our other ‘fancy’ ducks this year. There still are species I’ve never seen, like the wood ducks. I guess I’m going to have to go to the woods to find them!

    1. We can’t forget the Gadwall, the Wigeon, the Pintail, and the Goldeneye (not to be confused with the tasty northern fish). The Bufflehead is one I’d like to find this winter. I’ve photographed only one in all my time of roaming about, but I think they might be the most striking duck we have.

  3. We used to see coots on Lake Erie in the summer (I think – my brain is a little fuzzy right now – ha!). Wherever it was, I always thought they were so cute!

    1. I’m sure you saw them. A few years ago, I was in Minnesota in the summer, and the lake was full of coots. That was October, and we still didn’t have any down here. By the end of November, that Minnesota lake had lost its coots, but their loss was our gain. Migration is such a fascinating phenomenon!

    1. I’ve seen only one Merganser pair down here. There may be more, but there sure aren’t many more; at least, there aren’t down here on the coast. They crack me up with those “hair styles.” Can you imagine a Merganser feltie?

  4. How awesome that these different species seem to be getting along just fine, sharing space and resources. I bet there’s a message in there for us as we visit the polling places today, huh?!

    1. My goodness, wouldn’t that be nice? On the other hand, I’ve noticed that, despite all the anger and spite online, people in the real world around me seem to be making an effort to treat others more kindly: opening doors, smiling, letting drivers into the flow of traffic, and so on. I honestly believe people are tired of the constant chaos, and ready to live slightly more human lives!

  5. Pretty bunch-o-birds! I like how water birds hang out together. Like schools of fish. Do you think they learned that from the fish? Or maybe, the other way around?

    1. I’ve never seen a Ruddy Duck, and when I looked them up, I had to laugh at the various descriptions, like this, from the Cornell site: “The bright colors and odd behavior of male Ruddy Ducks drew attention from early naturalists, though they didn’t pull any punches. One 1926 account states, “Its intimate habits, its stupidity, its curious nesting customs and ludicrous courtship performance place it in a niche by itself…. Everything about this bird is interesting to the naturalist, but almost nothing about it is interesting to the sportsman.”

      It sounds like the Ruddy Duck was kind of a joke with more than your dad!

        1. I’ve heard our cranes, and seen two flying, but I’ve yet to track down a group of them. This weekend might be a good time, since we’re just had a strong front come through, and there have been plenty of butterflies and birds arriving ahead of it.

  6. My goodness, that could easily be one of my photos. I almost daily walk around the Lake Alexandra here in Mittagong and watch the ducks in all colours and sizes. They are now swimming around with their young and what a sight. Some families are huge.
    They keep a wary eye out for snakes who are now coming out of hibernation. I watched a large black snake being chased away by a very fiery water hen protecting her brood.

    1. I remember you mentioning your ducks, and the pleasure you take in them on your walks. Our babies are mostly grown up now, so we have parents trying to keep teenagers in tow, rather than having to worry about babies being snatched by gulls or fish or whatever.

      It’s such fun to hear about your spring events as we move into fall and toward winter. Our alligators and snakes are growing a bit lazy now, and when our first real cold front comes through this weekend, they’ll be spending most of their time basking in the sun.

  7. It’s beautiful to see this group. I love this time of year for all it brings, though I’ve not really gotten out to locations to see them this year. I’m always confused by the lesser and greater scaup and struggle to ID them. It’s fun when they appear in a mixed group that seems to include both, just leading to even greater confusion for me. But it’s always fun.

    1. Even though I read and re-read all the detailed descriptions of the different head shapes between the Scaups, I didn’t have a definitive photo. And of course birds can vary even within species, so there’s that. Still, I think I got this one right. Since these are shown as relatively uncommon in our area, it makes sense that there could be only one or a few; in any event, it was delightful to see such an ‘unusual’ bird.

  8. What a wonderful time of year as the skies, marshes, lakes and bays fill with migrating waterfowl. The gabbling just before dawn, a multitude of wing flaps as daily preening takes place, shapes and colors we get to learn about all over again each fall – an annual celebration that, for me, is akin to the trees changing into their colorful finery.

    “To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
    There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
    And a time for every purpose, under Heaven”

    Peter Seeger, The Byrds, The Bible – art can make for interesting collaborators.

    (Okay, too much coffee compels me: “Wabbit Season!” “Duck Season!”)
    Th-th-th-that’s all folks.

    1. It’s duck season, indeed. It amused me to see that this year’s Whitetail and Snipe season both began on November 5. There’s always someone who nicks a cow, but even the most inexperienced ought to be able to distinguish between a deer and a bird!

      We’re feeling the turning of the season this morning, after a twenty degree or so drop overnight. Frost and freeze advisories are up for north of I-10, and my squirrels are shoveling in the food so fast they’re not even taking time to fuss at one another. Best of all, I’ve seen more butterflies — and a greater variety — this year than ever before. Nature lesson #284: it’s easier to see caterpillars once plants’ leaves begin to fall.

  9. Our loss, or the loss of others to the west living at our latitudes, is your gain. Although I do not see as many ducks as birders do there are the occasional appearances on some of the ponds I visit. As an old coot myself I am happy to see our numbers so well represented by the pair in your picture.

    1. When the coots — young and old — really roll in, there can be hundreds gathered together. It’s rained most of today, and we have more forecast for the week, so even if the refuge ponds don’t fill, there at least will be more water around. I do love the coots; I think they’re among the most amusing birds we have. They’re feisty, too. A coot fight is great fun to watch!

      1. I watched a few videos of coot fighting ( very different than those between Fred Sanford and his various opponents) and they are entertaining. I was impressed that they fight with their feet.

    1. The migrations are something to behold, and flowers have their seasons, but it’s especially fun to find the outliers: the metaphorical eager beavers that set their own schedules. Just today, I heard a cardinal singing in the woods. If one’s tuning up already, mating season will be coming down the road soon.

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