On 9 January 2010, Brian Miller, Jason Hughey, Lindsay, and I participated in the Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey. Armed with binoculars, a spotting scope, and a clipboard with data sheets, we covered three sites along the St. Joseph River that had been surveyed in the past (Bercado Shores, Merrifield Park, and Veteran's Park); we also added two new sites (Mishawaka Riverwalk and St. Joseph's Lake at Notre Dame). As expected, the most abundant and frequent species that we encountered during our surveys was Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, below).
We also saw Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) at four of the five sites, including nearly 600 at Merrifield Park. Our next most common observations were American Coot (Fulica americana), at two of the sites, and Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), at three of the sites. A handsome male "hoodie" in breeding plumage on St. Joseph's Lake is shown below.
Species that we saw less frequently included Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis, at Veteran's Park), Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola, at Merrifield Park), Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula, at Merrifield Park), and Common Merganser (Mergus merganser, at St. Joseph's Lake). Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) and Domestic Duck were also observed at several locations but were not on our data sheets. We also encountered at least two mature Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), one at Merrifield Park (we also saw one at Mishawaka Riverwalk that we think was the same bird), and one at St. Joseph's Lake. While at St. Joseph's Lake, I had stopped to scope ducks and noticed that all of the Ring-billed and Herring Gulls (Larus delawarensis and Larus argentatus) that had previously been on the lake were instead in the air and appeared agitated. I mentioned this to Lindsay and asked rhetorically if there was an eagle nearby. Without missing a beat, she replied, "Yep, right there!" I looked in the direction of "there" to see a mature Bald Eagle, which proceeded to circle low over the lake and make several fruitless diving attempts at fish before flying out of view.
An added incentive to being outside and doing surveys such as this is the "bonus" species that you encounter that are not targets for your survey. While at St. Joseph's Lake, we heard a very distant rattle that we thought sounded like a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). After several minutes, the rattle got closer and sounded more distinctly like a kingfisher. Shortly after, I found the male Belted Kingfisher shown below. In most bird species that exhibit sexual dimorphism, the male is the more colorful of the two sexes; this is not the case in Belted Kingfishers. The male is almost entirely blue and white, whereas the female has a rufous band across the chest (below the blue band) that extends down the flanks.
Although waterfowl were our target for the day, the most bizarre thing that we saw was a spider hanging out in the snow. We were amazed that this 3/4 inch long arachnid, shown in the photograph below, was out in 20 degree Farenheit weather, and without a hat and gloves nonetheless! According to Tom Murray on http://www.bugguide.net/, spiders tolerate the cold and can even be found on the snow. I think this is one of the longjawed orbweavers in the genus Tetragnatha, but if anyone can positively identify it, please do so.
Many people think that with the snow and cold weather comes an absence of wildlife, but this is not at all the case. Don't be scared off by sub-freezing temperatures; get out there and see what you can find!