Saturday, June 27, 2015 Ducks in Trees

Seward, Alaska

Sunrise 4:34 am, sunset 11:26 pm, for a total day length of 18 hours, 51 minutes. Tomorrow will be 1 minute and 14 seconds shorter.

Squally today with periods of heavy rain, a good soaker. Hopefully the welcome rain will help knock down the forest fires on the Kenai Peninsula and help reduce the risk of new ones.

Driving down Nash Road this afternoon, I happened to see a female COMMON MERGANSER circling above the road. I found that odd and pulled over to watch. She flew around and around in wide circles with an air of desperation. Finally, she tried to land at the top of a dead cottonwood. Watching her webbed feet reach out to grab the skinny branches made me really appreciate the ease and grace of eagles and songbirds. Instead of deftly grasping the branches and landing, she awkwardly plowed through and kept flying.

After several earnest attempts, she managed to crash land against the tree and worked her way down to a horizontal trunk to catch her breath for a few seconds. Then she dropped off, circling, circling. After several minutes, she again approached the trees and in a controlled collision, slithered down the trunk, wings flailing away. That’s when I noticed the nest hole, a natural cavity formed where a large branch broke off the dead tree.

Her ducklings were probably recently hatched and hungry. As duck mommas do not deliver food like Robins, her day-old babies needed to climb up the steep sides of the nest cavity and leap about 60 feet to the ground. As light as ping pong balls, and probably about the same size, the drop would probably would be OK, except for all the branches in the way. Then, the tiny peepers could scurry on their minuscule webbed feet to the nearby stream, learn to swim, and look for food that they had never before seen or eaten. No small feat!

Meanwhile, momma stuck her worried head into the hole, flapping all the while for balance, her orange webbed feet grasping futilely for a toehold on the smooth, debarked trunk. Slipping, she then tried hovering like a kingfisher, a true helicopter mom, still peering into the nest cavity. But that too, failed. Airborne again, and circling, circling.

I can’t imagine how much energy she expended in this way, or how difficult it was for her to access her nest during the previous four weeks of incubation. Obviously, landing hadn’t gotten any easier with practice.

My amazement, admiration, and appreciation have skyrocketed for her and other female ducks in trees like the Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Goldeneye, and Bufflehead. It seems so alien and difficult. 

The importance of dead trees with suitable nesting cavities near streams was also highlighted by this hard-working, devoted momma merganser. Suitable nest boxes along this stream and by the Mile 1 wetlands might help these cavity-nesting ducks.

It would have been extremely exciting to see the ducklings come tumbling down, and watch the proud but exhausted momma paddle down the stream followed by her brave darlings. But, I didn’t want to add to her agitation at this critical time, so I left. I hope she and all her ducklings succeed!

A short ways away, I heard an ALDER FLYCATCHER, but couldn’t find him in all the, guess what, alders. At the Mile 1 wetlands, the elegant TRUMPETER SWAN family with all SIX cygnets, paddled at the far end. The cygnets are growing rapidly and are now gray.

The male RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD sat on his snag, whistling and singing. Suddenly, he took off and mercilessly chased a juvenile BALD EAGLE far from the wetlands. I saw him harassing the swans last week. Jim Herbert reported spotting a female today, exciting news! I believe they are nesting here as demonstrated by his territorial behavior. Last week, I also saw him fly up and snatch a passing moth or small white feather, and carry it into the marsh grasses. Was this for his nest, mate, or babies? Stay tuned!

A PACIFIC WREN sang his long song from the spruce forest at the edge of the wetlands on the east side of the road. It is late for him to still be singing, but a pleasure, nonetheless, to hear. A tiny GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET worked his way down a fallen tree trunk. A WILSON’S SNIPE winnowed overhead; this courtship also seems late. Also heard a SAVANNAH SPARROW singing. TREE SWALLOWS swooped over the wetlands, and two male ROBINS took turns chasing each other off a favorite roost in the marsh. The drama never ceases in the bird world!

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

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