Gulls, Waterfowl, and a Crime Scene

Stuart leading a Gull ID Master Class for the Northeast Wisconsin Birding Club
Stuart leading a Gull ID Master Class for the Northeast Wisconsin Birding Club

This past Saturday the Northeast Wisconsin Birding Club (NWBC) was treated to a master class on gull ID from club president and local gull expert Stuart. Chuckles along with “ohhs” and “ahhs” were heard throughout the presentation as Stuart explained why gulls are actually easy to sort through, key field marks for distinguishing them, and provided excellent data on the number or species found worldwide, nationally, statewide, and in our local area. Now I know what you’re thinking – “a whole talk on just gulls – those gray, garbage dump eating, parking lot favoring, pooping on car nemeses?” If that was your mindset and you decided to skip the talk, let me tell you – you missed one hell of a fun, informative, and inspirational presentation. Yes, I said it – inspirational. Following the talk a number of individuals, myself included, commented on their desire to “go gulling” and spend some time sorting through the flocks. Only one issue deterred us – the lack of gulls in the area this winter!

For anyone who missed the presentation, Stuart was kind enough to share his slides here: Gull ID Slides

Herring Gull; there were a few gulls around, just not the numbers as in past winters.
After Stuart’s gull ID class, you fail if you guess this is a Laughing Gull! Herring Gull; there were a few gulls around, just not the numbers as in past winters.

Following lunch with the club at my favorite Neenah pub, Greene’s Pour House, I stopped back down at the Neenah YMCA and then headed over towards James Island in search of waterfowl – specifically looking to spend some more time with the female Common and Red-breasted Mergansers. I had stopped by the Y for about 30 minutes prior to the club meeting, but the Red-breasted were far off and swimming in the opposite direction. Thankfully there were some other ducks around to hold my attention.

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CLICK FOR LARGER PHOTO; How many species do you see? Scroll down for the answer.

In the above photo, I was able to capture the two American Black Ducks with seemingly different speculums (the purple patch on the duck in the center and the blue patch on the duck to its left). This iridescent patch shifts from shades of blue to purple based on how the light hits it.  Unlike the female Mallard – center right with the blue patch with a white edging – the black ducks lack the white border to their speculums. This photo also illustrates just how dark the American Black Ducks are. Doing a little research, I had to smile reading Pete Dunne’s descriptions of this species in his seminal work Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Dunne opens by describing the American Black Duck as “A Mallard dressed for a funeral….” Well said Mr. Dunne!

If you haven’t figured it out yet, there are three species in the photo above; 2 American Black Ducks (center and center left showing the purple & blue wing patches), 2 Gadwall (left, showing the white wing patch & lower right corner), and 3 female Mallards (left).

Gadwall.
Gadwall (male).

I also spent some time watching the male Common Goldeneyes strut their stuff for the senoritas. It’s always fun watching them toss their heads straight back and then calling out with their bills pointed towards the sky. All told, the goldeneyes have 14 distinct behaviors geared at attracting a female. It’s a complex courtship display which is usually performed by four males for every female. It might seem early for courtship displays, but by the time goldeneyes arrive on their breeding grounds in April and May they are already paired. If you have a chance, get out and see them while you can, they’ll be moving north before you know it.

Common Goldeneye trying to attract a mate.
Common Goldeneye trying to attract a mate.

Although I didn’t have luck finding the female Red-breasted Mergansers, I did get some excellent looks at a female Common Merganser. Swimming close to shore, the female below was very photogenic and allowed me to capture perhaps my most detailed photo to date with my new camera.

CLICK FOR LARGER PHOTO: Common Merganser (female).
CLICK FOR LARGER PHOTO: Common Merganser (female).

Since the female Common and Red-breasted Mergansers are similar, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison below. More details on separating these species below.

Red-breasted Merganser (female) on the left; Common Merganser (female) on the right.
Red-breasted Merganser (female) on the left; Common Merganser (female) on the right.
  • Note the obvious contrast and sharp delineation where the red and white meet on the neck of the Common Merganser. On the Red-breasted, it’s blended with little contrast.
  • Although hard to tell due to the lighting in these photos, the Common has a thicker bill and a darker head color compared to the Red-breasted.
  • One final item of note is the white “chin” patch on the Common which is missing on the Red-breasted.

There are also some differences in the “wispiness” and shape of their crests, but I find these more variable based on if they’re actively feeding, resting, preening, etc….

And on a final note, I returned home to find a murder had taken place in my backyard! While on my way out to fill the heated birdbath, I came across the following:

The crime scene.
The crime scene.

Due to the viciousness of the crime, the victim has yet to be fully identified, but I’m leaning towards an American Goldfinch due to the slight yellow colorings on the feather fringes below. If you recognize these feathers or think they may come from a different species, leave me a comment and let me know!

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American Goldfinch feathers.
American Goldfinch feathers.

The main suspect is a Cooper’s Hawk who is known to patrol the neighborhood, but since no other birds have stepped forward with information, I can’t rule out a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Bird It Up!

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