Autumn Rambles

I mentioned over the summer that my husband and I had relocated to a new nest. Well, that was greatly due to the fact that we were expecting our own little hatching. Our daughter joined us in September and as a result our nature walks and outings have taken on a slightly different form. Instead of a camera bag full of lens options, we now have a diaper bag. Instead of hilly hikes in the woods, we have been sticking to fairly mild trails, usually closer to suburban neighborhoods. If I am honest, the choice of terrain really has more to do with easing myself back into physical activity, but we can blame it on the baby.

As we began taking the baby on airings, I noticed that my focus was greatly changed. When I even thought to bring along my camera, my photos were all of the baby. Nature had taken a back seat. However, that changed recently. One of our rambles this Autumn took us to Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve where we made a rare (at least for me) sighting of a small flock of Hooded Mergansers. I happened to have my camera on this walk, and just like that, the bird watcher was back! (I did/do still take an exceptionally large number of photos of my daughter, don’t worry.)

I really love Mergansers in any of the three varieties: Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers and Red-Breasted Mergansers. They are all just so sleek looking, and they almost give the appearance of an upper-class snob with their fur collars popped at the other ducks in the pond. Based on my observations, even the Common Mergansers aren’t all that common, not in comparison to Mallards, Canada Geese and other waterfowl that you spot in every park in the world. According to The Birds of New Jersey,Hooded Mergansers are not common summer residents in most of the state. They are migrants and winter residents, arriving in late November and can be seen in most places with water, although they are more common near the coast. They typically arrive in pairs or groups of about ten birds. Once in their winter quarters, they meet up with other pairs to form groups of between 100-200 Hooded Mergansers.

The Hooded Mergansers are easy to identify and, as the name indicates, it is all about the hood. Unlike the other two species of Mergansers, the male Hooded Merganser has an arrangement of feathers on his head that form a large and very distinct crest or hood. The male has a sleek black body, with some brown or rust just at the waterline. A mostly black head makes the white patch on his crest pop even more. The male can actually open and close his crest at will, using it to attract attention.

The female Hooded Merganser also has a hood or crest, but as is the case with so many species, hers is much less flashy or eye catching. Its feathers are the same brown and rust color as the rest of her body. Her hood is also not nearly as round as his.

As we continued our walk we were able to spot a few more treats. We saw a few Double-Crested Cormorants. It is not unusual to see a few of them at this preserve. Generally they are spring and fall migrants, but they do live year round along both the eastern and western borders of the state where flowing water is available year round. One of the Cormorants we came across must have just finished fishing because it remained poised on a rock, wings outstretched in the sun. While it might look like this Cormorant was getting ready to take flight, this is a common pose for wet Cormorants who need to dry their feathers between “flying” in the water and taking off in the air.

The resident Mute Swans were also present, their white feathers in stark contrast to the late autumnal brown of their surroundings. They didn’t seem remotely phased by a pair of Double-Crested Cormorants resting nearby. But at sixty inches, a Swan is almost double the size of a Cormorant, and therefore probably not really concerned about them.

We had one final sighting, a bird so small and plain we almost missed it. If we hadn’t been watching the larger birds, we might not have seen its movements in the water. A lone Pied-Billed Grebe. I have only seen one or two of this species before, always a lone bird. Like the Mergansers, the Pied-Billed Grebe is a common winter bird in my area that starts arriving in the fall months. While they are hard to spot, once you have seen a Pied-Billed Grebe, it is easy to confirm its identity. Besides its small size compared to other water birds (it is 13 inches to a Mallards 28 inches), it has a thick, stubby bill. When seen in winter the bill has lost its usual, distinctive black vertical stripe. Its bill is actually its only “interesting” feature, as its body is dark gray and its eyes are black.

I am happy to be back, sharing my birding adventures and observations with you. I hope to get back to posting more regularly in the near future, so stay tuned!