04 May 2011

Comins Lake

As if we couldn't get enough birding in during our work days at Spring Valley, nearly every day on the way back to the hotel we stopped at Comins Lake. Located in Steptoe Valley, Comins Lake is an artificial lake that was created in 1953 when Highway 93 was realigned, damming Steptoe, Cave, and Willow Creeks.

Although dormant, the plant community immediately surrounding the lake appeared rather interesting, with a dominance of rushes and sedges.

On most days, we only spent a few minutes watching waterfowl on the lake, but on a couple of occasions when I had a bit more time I walked or drove around other parts of the lake and spent more time birding. Comins Lake was very productive and played a huge part in my reaching 80 bird species for my trip list.

I simply could not get enough of the Yellow-headed Blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus - now that's a descriptive Latin name if I've ever seen one... yellow head yellow head). These loud, obnoxious Icterids with bright yellow heads and striking white wing patches were present in large flocks every day at Comins Lake.

I'd only seen Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera, below) in books and photos, so it was a real treat to see this reddish duck on several occasions at Comins Lake. I was surpried at just how red the males were; females are quite drab, and I was really only able to identify them at long range by their association with the brightly-colored male.

Cinnamon Teals are dabbling ducks, meaning that they feed mostly at the surface. The two ducks below are diving ducks, meaning that they dive for food and often spend several seconds under water. This can be frustrating when trying to photograph them.

Above is a male Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) in breeding plumage. This is an unmistakable duck, with its powder blue bill, red body, black cap, white face, and rudder-like tail that often sticks straight up. If ever there was a cute duck, Ruddy Duck is it.

On the opposite end of the size spectrum for diving ducks is the much larger Canvasback (Aythya valisneria). Those of you familiar with aquatic plants will recognize the specific epithet of the Latin name for Canvasback as the genus for eel grass (Vallisneria americana). The winter buds and roots of Eel grass are said to be the preferred food of this diver during the non-breeding period.

We observed one or two Common Loons (Gavia immer, above) on the lake. One of its alternate names (Great Northern Diver) provides a precise description of the habits of this bird. Common Loons can dive up to 200 feet deep in search of fish to feed upon. Growing to over three feet long, Common Loons can weigh up to 12 pounds; they are not the most graceful of birds in flight.

A common bird on Comins Lake that was intermixed with American Coot (Fulica americana, not pictured) was the Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), known in some places at the Black-necked Grebe. The birds in the photograph above are in breeding plumage; in non-breeding plumage, they are much less spectacular, with a grayish body, whitish neck and face, and dark cap.

I only saw one gull that was close enough to identify during my trip. Bonaparte's Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia, above) have black hoods when in breeding plumage, but in non-breeding plumage, as I usually see them in Indiana, they have white heads with a small black spot behind the eye. During migration, this species can be seen throughout nearly the entire United States, but to see them on breeding grounds, you would need to travel north to the taiga and boreal forest regions of Canada.

I was excited to see the bird in the photograph above, Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus). Brewer's Blackbirds are fairly uncommon in Indiana during migration, but this species is common in the western United States during the summer (and year round in some places). Brewer's Blackbirds can be difficult to distinguish from the more eastern Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus), but males of the former are more glossy than those of the latter, and the female Brewer's Blackbird often does not have the yellow iris (seen in the male above), whereas the female Rusty Blackbird does have a yellow iris.

Finally, as I posted previously, one of the highlights for me at Comins Lake was American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana). This shorebird is primarily a western species, but I have seen them on one occasion along Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes State Park. The very smooth looking plumage, white eyering, and upturned bill makes these birds look cartoonish to me.

Other birds of interest at Comins Lake included Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii), Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), Great Egret (Casmerodius albus), Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi), Gadwall (Anas strepera), American Wigeon (Anas americana), Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata), Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca), Redhead (Aythya americana), Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris), Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis), Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus), Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago), Common Raven (Corvus corax), Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis), Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris), Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides), and Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta).


Pete said...

I've enjoyed your posts on Nevada birds. It's a much "birdier" state than most people imagine. A morning of birding within a short drive of Las Vegas can produce a very respectable list in a variety of habitats, from wetlands, to desert scrub, to coniferous forests.

Seeing your Yellow-headed Blackbird photos I am reminded of evenings in the winter in Guanajuato, Mexico, when this species would come in to roost by the thousands in the tree filled plazas.

Keith said...

Fascinating. I never would have pictured Nevada as a good place for birding. Nice photos, Scott. Were they taken through your scope?

Scott Namestnik said...

Thanks Pete. I was amazed by all of the water birds that were there. Can't imagine the collective noise that would be created by thousands of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Thanks Keith. No scope was used in these photos, just my camera.

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