bearriver Blog : waterfowl

Whether we are open or closed, the seasons march on...

 I speak for everyone when I say ‘it’s great to be back!’ We are working hard at getting back on schedule.  The birds are here in full force, the waterfowl hunting season has opened, birders and photograhpers are here as well. Water levels are being checked and adjustments made. The L-line construction project will start up again. And at the Wildlife Education Center we are the getting back to business as usual. 

 It was an interesting 16 days during the Government Shutdown.  Everyone but our Project Leader Bob and LEO Greg were sent home.  Lucky for us Zone Officer Lisa was able to stay on the job as well.  Together they spent countless hours at the Refuge gates upholding the shutdown status. 

During the closure the waterfowl migrated into the Refuge in large numbers.  It was a ‘duck-nado’ said one officer.  The arrival of waterfowl signaled the departure of other birds.  Shorebirds, egrets, and pelicans are all moving to warmer climates.  The swallows are gone, but the American pipits are arriving and whether we are open or closed, the seasons march on.

In the past week since we re-opened, visitor's are reporting Rough-legged hawks, Tundra Swans by the hundreds, and the diving ducks are starting to arrive as well.  Plus, double-crested cormorants and great blue herons are gathering in flocks. Its a good time of year to see the Mule deer that frequent the Refuge as well. Come on out and see the Refuge for yourself.





Scaup Scoop!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012female Greater Scaup

Yesterday we had a rather uncommon bird on the Refuge...a Greater Scaup. This diving duck spends its breeding season well north of us in Alaska in the west and northern Canada to the east.  Then, come winter, the Greaters move south along the coastlines - rarely straying inland - but sometimes seen mixed in with other flocks of divers such as Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked duck and their cousins, Lesser Scaup.  So - when our Biologist, Howard Browers, returned to the office after a bird survey reporting he had seen one female Greater Scaup, the buzz zipped around the birders like static on wool socks.

Luckily, as an avid and experienced birder, Howard asked me to try and go back out and confirm the sighting...and it just so happened I needed to get out and clean our Auto Loop restrooms as well, so the timing was perfect.  After performing my watercloset duties, I drove to where the bird had been spotted and YES...she was still there - in bold browns, blacks and whites - to be confirmed and seen.

Greater Scaup are one of the very few circumpolar duck species, over 80% of the population wintering along the coasts in the Atlantic flyway, but small numbers do winter out here in the West. Preferring shallow water lakes and ponds in the summer - the Greaters switch to coastal, shallow, salt-water bays and brackish river inlets in the winter.  In Utah, most sightings happen around the Great Salt Lake, so it was unique to find one in the fresh water wetlands of the Refuge.  But then, in winter, scaup switch from their summer diet of insects, crustaceans and mollusks to a much more green diet of submerged plant matter, so the Refuge seems like a great place to stop for a snack.

Now, the scoop on differentiating between Greater and Lesser scaup is a bit tricky. But here are some key characteristics or field marks to look for:  Head shape.  Greater scaup are slightly larger than Lessers, with a noticeably larger and more rounded head. I like to think of it as a clear, curvy S shape from back up to bill on the Greater.  Whereas, Lessers have a flatter back-of-the-head area that comes to almost a point at the back of the crown - much more like Ring-necked ducks. This shape - to my eye - always makes it look like the Lessers are looking down a bit, head tilting down toward the water. Another great clue, if you see a male, is the color of the head. Greaters tend to have a much more green irridescent wash on their head unlike a darker blue/black/purple on Lessers - but this is not always clear unless seen in the right light. And another way to differentiate between male scaup is the amount of white and quality of white/grey on the sides of the bird. Lessers are much more grey overall...contrasting shades of grey from sides to back, whereas the Greater males are very bright white to white-ish grey on the sides - a much bolder contrasting set of colors.  Now of course, little of that helps in differentiating female scaup. Both have white cresents before their eyes and are mostly brown.  Using the head size and shape helps, and female Greaters seems to be "brighter" or to have bolder, constrasting patters of browns/blacks and whites. And finally, bill size. Greaters have larger and slightly wider bill than Lessers.  All of this is much easier seen when both species are present and comparisons can be made.

So, that's the scaup scoop for today. I hope you enjoyed and learned a little...but even more so, I hope you have the opportunity to observe these stately and handsome duck in the wild...if not here on the Refuge, perhaps along one of the coasts this winter.

Happy Birding

 - Jason

Arrival of the BIG STARS!

Friday, October 25, 2012

Let's just admit it right now.  Bald eagles and Tundra swans are two of the biggest stars in the bird world, especially right here at the Refuge, and for weeks (and sometimes months) before their return...people are asking "Any swans yet?"; "When do the eagles get here?"; and "When is the best time to see swans and eagles?!"  Tundra swans and full moon over the BRMBR, by Lloyd Bush

Well folks...that time is just...about... NOW.  Swans have started to arrive on the Refuge..from just a few last week to hundreds and maybe thousands this week, and the number is expected to grow into the 10s & 20s of thousands into mid-November until the wetlands freeze over. Of course,    if they don't freeze over like last year       (due to such a mild winter)  we can have flocks of swans here straight through the cold months until March for Swan day on March 9. But - if we have a more regular Thanksgiving or shortly after,   most of the swans will head south and west of us to Mono lake and southern California. (Photo: SWAN MOON, by Lloyd Bush.)

As for the eagles - it is possible to see some in the winter...but they prefer it around here when the ice is almost covering the wetlands with scattered open water to fish in.  The best month is February - hence we have Bald Eagle day on February 9th - but we do get "Baldies" coming in in late November and through December as keep an eye out for this superstar.

So, Papparazzi birders, get your bins and scopes ready for the BIG BIRDS and their entourages...and don't forget to dress warm!

Happy Birding

 - Jason

Wild Winter Waterfowl (and other birds) Survey

February 22

This is my last opportunity to get out on the Refuge for a bird count in February.  They had already had a count last week so Linda and I stayed home.  Howard Browers, biologist at the refuge, wanted to go along but wanted to include his survey for waterbirds as well.  This was a good opportunity for me to see what his ideas were for the counts and also see how one counts literally 1000.s of bird in a fairly short time span.  We met at the Education Center at 0730 and headed out.  It was a nice morning with temps in the mid 20’s, little wind and overcast skies.  We had a good visit as we headed for the Perry gate and it didn’t take long before we were countin’ birds.  Redwing blackbirds, ravens and ring billed gulls got us started.  By the time we hit the turn in the D-line road we hit our first large group of waterbirds.  Howard broke out the spotting scope and started calling out species and numbers.  Swans, geese and a good variety of ducks kept me busy with the tally sheets and then my song birds would bring me back to the reality that I had to keep track of them as well.  I was caught off guard when Howard started calling out bald eagle sightings and they didn’t come one at a time.  There was one large group of mature balds on the ice totaling 14 birds, what a grand sight that was, bet they are eating a lot of ducks. 

We continued working our way around the different Units and when we strayed the normal route for the songbird count I would get a break.  Sometimes Howard would have me tally by bird counts and sometimes there were so many birds he would estimate the total and then give me species by percentages.  It didn’t take long in our route before we had a bit of a weather change and a cold wind kept me in the truck while he braved the elements to get out with the scope.  We had a wonderful day in the marsh and the birds were fairly cooperative except for the little brown jobs that flit from one patch of Phrag to another and never seem to hold still long enough to be identified before they pass clean out of sight.  When we hit lunch time and still had not hit the half way point in our count, I knew we were in for a long day (sure wish I had brought a lunch, guess the diet coke would have to hold me for a while). 

Around 2:00 we started seeing snow squalls working their way across the Promontory and Wasatch mountains and down into the basin floor.  It wouldn’t be long before the snow would work its way across the refuge and change our count strategy.  I learned quickly that any kind of bird is hard to identify in a white out, but Howard persevered and we made it through to the end.  We hit about 14 species on the songbird/raptor count and Howard estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40,000 water birds.  It was a real eye opener to watch Howard ID birds at 500 yards with the scope. 

Our top sightings for the day were the tundra swans, 49 bald eagles, two smelly little skunks working the road banks for a bite, and a barn owl hunting the marsh for a mouse or two as we passed the electric gate and headed back to the Education Center.  Nine volunteer hours, not a bad day for an old retired guy!

 - Brian Ferguson   

(Please note, this Survey was done by US FWS Biologist, Howard Browers, and Refuge Volunteer Brian Ferguson.  Not all areas surveyed are open to the public - but many of these birds and species can be seen from our public Auto Tour Loop as well!)