Sunday, January 31, 2010

Who's the daddy?

Millions of years ago the Earth's land mass were arranged differently.  A group of birds formed in to what would become known as the duck species of today.  In that nebulous bird soup a smaller group forged it's own identity, we know them today as Wigeons.  

In the time since then the Earth's slow but sure tectonic plate action separated the initial core group into isolated groups. Today two species of Wigeon are found in the Northern hemisphere divided between the Eurasia and North America land masses. This is just a personal observation but it took a true lack of imagination with a over ridding zeal for accuracy to name them the Eurasian Wigeon and American Wigeon respectively.

 American Wigeon Drake

 Another fine example of an American Wigeon

 American Wigeon Drake and Hen

 American Wigeon Drake and Hen

The polar ice cap during the past ice ages as well as the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans formed the large physical barriers the allowed all the two species to evolve into what we see today. Remember the females chose the males that impress them the best, the tastes in the old world went to the red and the new world went to the green.

Two years ago while walking in Titlow Park in Tacoma, Washington I came across a Male Eurasian Wigeon in a flock of American Wigeons. He stood out with his beautiful red head and silvery body feathers. At the time I took some photos and did not think about it much. I had seen just three Male Eurasian Wigeons before in the Puget Sound area. I was just elated to have been able to photograph one.  They are not very common and the numbers vary each year.

Eurasian Wigeon Drake at Titlow Park

 Here both the American and Eurasian Wigeon on the wing. Notice a strong metallic green on the wing of the Eurasian Drake

A few days ago I was near Titlow Park again and the sun broke out from behind the thick cloud cover. I took a quick left and headed to Titlow to see if there was anything new going on there. I was kinda surprised to find a flock of American Wigeons exactly where I had seen them two years ago. Even though I was surprised to find the flock I was not too surprised to find the Male Eurasian Wigeon still with the flock.  

In the spring of each year millions of both species migrate North and mingle in Alaska.  When the time comes to head south there is some confusion and inevitably birds from both species get caught up with the wrong group and end up migrating South along the respectively wrong side of the Pacific Ocean.  This also happens to the birds that live in the Atlantic Ocean Basin.  While the Males of each species are easy to tell apart the female are all but impossible. These birds that have gone the wrong way have no choice but to stay with the birds that look similar to the ones they are used to. When they migrate North again the following year they may or may not find their own kind.

Some of these "lost" birds settle in with their new flocks and take mates. The calls and breeding behaviors do differ but not so greatly that the birds to not find each other attractive. Being distinct species their mixed offspring are hybrids and take on the characteristics of both. Since there is variation on how the genes split the outward expression of the genes creates a variety of beautiful and unique birds. As to if these offspring can successfully breed themselves, I do not know, I would assume that they could due to the species not differing greatly.

During my visit I thought I have found a second Male Eurasian Wigeon. As these two male Wigeons maneuvered closer to each other I notice on of the red headed Drakes differed from the other. After a few minutes I realized the second Drake I had found was one of these Hybrids.

American X Eurasian Wigeon Drake on the left with an American Wigeon Hen.  It is easy to see the characteristics of both of the species in the Male. He clearly has Eurasian body feathers and a head that is red but patterned like the American with green highlights.

 Our hybrid in the center flanked by two American Wigeon Drakes
This photograph sums up my whole article in it's self. The duck in the foreground is an American Wigeon Drake, the second is an Eurasian Wigeon Drake, the third is an American X Eurasian Wigeon Drake and an American Wigeon Hen in the back ground.

Since it has been two years since my first sighting of the Eurasian Wigeon Drake in this flock I do not think it is too much of a leap to conclude that the hybrid duck may be his offspring.  OR...There may be a pure breed Female Eurasian Wigeon in the flock that mated with an American Wigeon.
Either way, I am sure that some where else in this flock there might be one or more female hybrids also. Due to the gray and red color morphs common to the females as well as the similarities of the females in both species normally, I doubt I would be able to find one that I could clearly identify, photograph and share with you. They are active birds and while I can get close enough for decent pictures, none of them would cooperate long enough to take family portraits.
As I have pointed out before,  I am an amateur naturalist who makes causal observations on what I see in my limited world.
I could be wrong. I could be right. DNA testing may provide the final answer.  I am sure none of the ducks are going to fess up to it. But then again none of them are going on the Maury Povich Show to figure out who is the babies daddy. They just make pretty babies.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When is a duck not?

Last Sunday I took the dogs to Sequalitchew Lake on Fort Lewis. It is a small lake that does not allow gas motors. Over the past twenty years I have seen a wide variety of wildlife on and around the lake. During the winter storms it offers a safe fresh water refuge just two miles inland from the Solo Point area I have written about recently.

The past few weeks here have been one set of warm storms after another and it will continue for at least ten more going by the weather reports. I wanted to see what was on the lake and hunting over head. Bald Eagles frequent the Trout and Bass filled shallows.

The dogs burned off their energy west of the lake allowing me to slowly drive the gravel road on the south side of the lake. Nothing, nothing, nothing and then suddenly around the next little clearing, nothing. I did see a new beaver lodge which made me mentally review how long it had been since I had been out there. My past few visits found military exercises in this part of the post and the roads closed. With limited access I just stopped going out there about three years ago.

As I came upon the last pull out along the lake I spotted a flock of Canvas-backed ducks on the far bank. I pulled in and let the dogs out for a new sniff. I looked at the ducks for a few seconds and whistled for the dogs and put them back in the car.

What a beautiful sight. Calm protected waters with food and companionship. Let's imagine we are a duck looking for a place to rest. We'll start with a quick fly by to check out the approach and landing paths. When I say "quick" I mean flying by thirty to fifty miles per hour. A lose orbit puts us on track to land just in front of those Canvasbacks. 
 With the landing zone coming up fast it is easy to see the flock of Canvasbacks are a mix of males and females, off to the left a small group of Mallards have separated themselves. The Canvasbacks are divers the feed in deeper water while the Mallards are dabblers and feed from the surface in shallow water.Once we land we can see who is friendlier and hang out with them.


(If you have not seen the problem by now it is unlikely you would last long as a duck.)

At the base of the tree is a hoop blind with a duck hunter looking back at me with binoculars. If we had been ducks rocketing in he would have been tucked under the netting waiting until we were in range.

A lack of movement when I looked at the Canvasbacks  made me pulled the dogs back to the car. I did not see the hunter until I looked at the pictures.  I am a birder, I have no bitch with the hunter so we cleared out so he can have his turn.

I get them the rest of the year. I think I get the better deal. My season is longer, more inclusive, no bag limit and I can shoot my quarry time after time.

Then go back again tomorrow.

Oh, when it is a decoy.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

...then a whale swam by.

December 18, 2009

My grandson and I went out bird watching after a major bout of holiday cookie dough preparation for a cookie making party later in the week. He was pretty pumped up on the ingested samples and needed to be set free in the fresh air. I loaded him and the dogs up for a trip to the beach. Of course any time I leave the house with him is a reason to pass by the Eagle nest on the creek. As we approached the creek I could see a birding friend was already there photographing the roosting Great Blue Herons. The Herons have selected the Douglas Firs on the Western bank of the creek to soak up the morning rays. They are directly below the active Eagle nest.  We talked and caught up on our recent birding adventures. The topic turned to Loons. I told him that I had recently seen loons at Solo Point. He pondered this for a moment and we were off to Solo Point.

We pulled up to the waters edge and my car quickly emptied of dogs and grandson. They know the drill. A free run on the beach. My friend and I began to scan the distant Sea Lions with our cameras. As I looked for Loon silhouettes a rush of air pierced the waters surface just yards off shore leaving a column of mist over the back of a whale

A whale was surfacing for air as it passed. I was stunned. I have seen so few whales I stood there for a few moments forgetting that I had a camera in hand.

And then it was gone.

I called my grandson back over to where we were standing and told him to watch for the whale to come up again. We had no clue as to how far it would go before coming back up. It's direction and speed seemed to be constant for the five breathes it had taken during our first sighting. A few moments later it came up about one hundred yards further along it's course.  Luckily it was still very close.

At the time I saw the whale I had no clue as to what kind  it was. After looking at the photos and on line resources my wife and I concluded it was a Gray Whale. My best guess as to it's size....twenty-five to  thirty feet long.  It was moving about walking speed, rather a slow and mellow pace.

The near land mass in the back ground is the Southern tip of Ketron Island and the far is McNeil Island. As the whale entered the channel between Ketron Island and Solo Point the Sea Lions further out on the gravel barge buoy began to bark wildly.

As the whale slipped under the surface for the last time a Sea Lion surface right on it's tail. The Sea Lion snorted when it saw us on the shore, then followed the whale for another hundred yards then turned toward the buoy where the flotilla was still barking.

There were no Loons there that day but it was great!  I called it in to a State Whale Hotline and reported the location and time. I received an e-mail the next day telling me that this whale hade been seen in the area for the week prior. I have been checking their web site and see that a young Gray Whale is still orbiting the lower reaches and islands of the area.

Gray Whales give birth to their young in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico then migrate to Alaskan waters to feed during the Summer. In the Fall as they migrate South back to Mexico some of the offspring from the previous year that have been driven off by their mothers take the inside passage between Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland. This path is dangerous for the inexperienced juveniles.  The narrow waters and islands of the Southern reaches of the Salish Sea do not lead back to the open ocean. The urge to travel south takes the young whales up to a hundred miles inland. They will not eat until next summer when they go back to Alaska so food is not a problem. They can however waste too much energy finding their way back to the ocean and decrease their odds of surviving their first year along. Not all of them find their way back out.

All we can do is wish them the best and a safe trip.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010