Thursday, December 11, 2014

DE: Winter Bears Down! Newark Reservoir

There is no doubt about it - winter is my favorite time of year! The birding in the Mid-Atlantic is fantastic, winter botany is supreme, snows come and go, and with leaves down I can see geological features and landscape structure that gives context and history to this region. Great flocks of migrating birds from the Arctic and interior of Canada descend on our marshes, beaches, woods, fields, and bays. It's a season that requires careful observation, patience, and preparation.

We bundle up for long stays in one place. Brrrr!

Last weekend I joined a group of DOS birders at the Newark Reservoir in Newark, Delaware. We walked slowly along checking hundreds of Canada geese on the water for rarities and uncommon birds. We found two cackling geese hidden within the largest flock on the water. Canada geese, the largest of the northern 'black geese'  that include Barnacle and Brant geese in North America, have several recognized races that represent unique populations from all over the Arctic - Baffin Island, Interior and Western Canada, Labrador, Ellesmere and Southampton Islands, Hudson Bay, Northwest Territories, Vancouver, and the Boothia Peninsula. It takes a trained eye to see the identifiers in a large flock of Canada geese that all look the same at first glance - but they're there! 

Two Cackling Geese, short, stubby bills, smaller body.

With a huge Nor'easter swirling over New England, the winds have been constant and cold all week. We received a few days of snow squalls and rain. With gusts roaring across the tops of trees, it's been hard to hear interior birds, although I watched a large flock of wild turkeys move silently out into the harvested soybean field to feed. Deer are everywhere.

Snow squalls dust the woods in white.

It's now that I can appreciate animal and insect architecture. With birds and bees long gone, kids love hunting for mud dauber tubes and paper wasp nests on rocky outcrops. Sometimes we can even identify sources of building materials the wasps frequented by the colors of the bands of chewed wood fiber and mud.  Bright orange from the osage orange trees and silty yellows from the wetlands.

Mud dauber tube nest in detail.

Out on the bay the rafts of diving ducks have been growing. The big storms are pushing them south along the coast. In a month there will be thousands of canvasbacks, mergansers, redheads, and ruddy ducks darkening the surface of the Upper Bay. Like winter foraging flocks of small birds in the woods, rafting provides diving ducks protection from predators, weather, and offers feeding advantages that come along with big numbers.

Canvasbacks begin to form winter rafts.

Studying rafts of ducks from a windy bluff overlooking a cold fetch of water or standing in a gusty snow squall in a field peering through a scope at massive flocks of grazing geese can often yield a wide variety of species and maybe a few rarities. We were lucky to spot a white-fronted goose in a large flock of geese at work this week, but I could never find it again to get a good picture!

Snow squalls and Canada geese - check each flock carefully!

The ground is still too warm to hold the snow for long so as soon as the snow comes, it goes. Walking along the sunny edge of the woods after a melt can reveal busy little flocks of winter associates moving as a flock together. The tufted titmouse and her mate always seem to be in charge. Wherever they go, the chickadees, kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, sparrows, downy woodpeckers, brown creepers, and wrens will follow.

Brown creeper staying low out of the wind!

Golden-crowned Kinglet.

A tiny Winter Wren is just as cute as can be!

Yellow-rumped Warber follows its winter feeding flock.

Tufted Titmouse and her mate lead the winter flock through the woods.

Winter is bearing down. I keep gloves and knit hats in the car just in case a sunny day becomes a snowy, windy one. I have three field guides in my bag - my Sibley, NatGeo, and Peterson. I have binoculars on the kitchen table, in my backpack, in the car, and on my desk at work. Jackets, scarves, longjohns, boots, warm socks - all at the ready! I can hardly sit still when the season turns from fall to winter. Every day brings some new visitor or some sight that was hidden all summer. Get your jacket - here we go!

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