WINTER DUCKS AND WADERS

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If the beginning of the winter season is any indication of what will happen later (which may be a completely erroneous assumption), water bird populations at Emeralda will be considerably different this winter than they were last.  Duck and coot abundance seems noticeably lower this year, and several species of ducks that were regulars last season (ruddys and buffleheads, for example) haven't appeared yet this winter.

Fulvous whistling ducks have been present again in flocks of up to several hundred, but they are still quite shy.   Usually they flush before I can frame and focus, but even if I do get a shot off, they are usually swimming or walking away into deeper cover.

    
      One neat addition to the duck fauna occurred in November.  A group of 13 black-bellied whistling ducks appeared for several weeks in a row, and were always found in the same spot along my census route.  I had seen pairs of these ducks in flight on 2 or 3 occasions before, but not this many.  They disappeared by mid-December, and I  haven't seen them since.  As they were last winter, the most common ducks have been blue-winged teal, which are often found in pairs or multiples of two.   Below are two males; like most of our wintering ducks, they are courting and pair-bonding while on their wintering grounds, which is why they are so colorful while here.
          

The ciconiiform community  hasn't changed drastically in species composition, but some changes have been dramatic.  Cattle egrets, which numbered in the thousands during the middle of their spring/summer breeding season, are rarely seen on the flow-way at all, and then only in small groups.   Other waders make their first appearance in fall or winter.

American bitterns arrived for the winter in October, but I see them  fairly infrequently, even though they are probably quite common.  Their cryptic coloration combined with their slow motion movements and foraging behaviors, as well as their secretive ways,  help to explain why I don't see them more often.  The on the right below allowed me to watch him hunt for about 15 minutes, however.

From their mid-October peak of abundance, the number of wood storks dropped to a typical count of several dozen a week, though it bounces up and down from one week to the next.  Recently they've been spending a lot of time hanging out in the tops of some of the taller cypresses along the flow-way. Black-crowned night herons (right) are almost always seen in numbers ranging from a few to more than a dozen, but are one of the wariest of the herons here.  I still haven't been able to get close enough to get a portrait shot. 

    
 

Though limpkins are in the crane order (Gruiformes), I tend to think of them as being ecologically more closely allied to the herons and egrets. This one let me watch and photograph him/her for about 20 minutes one morning as (s)he alternately preened, yawned and loafed.  She later flew to a bed of emergent vegetation and began to hunt with great success. I watched him catch, open and eat several mussels.  Folks may try to tell you that limpkins are exclusive apple snail specialists, but don't you believe it.  They do seem to be highly partial to the mollusks, though.  Can't say that I blame them, though I like mine with some Tabasco or cocktail sauce.

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