29 January 2012

Birding the St. Joseph River

Lindsay and I joined Brian Miller and other South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society members on a "river run" along the St. Jospeh River on Saturday, January 28, 2012.  As we've heard from those who've been in our chapter for many years more than we have, this used to be a very productive field trip, with large rafts of waterfowl observed at various locations along the river.  These days, unfortunately, there is little waterfowl diversity on the river, but it still makes for a fun morning (despite the biting wind).

Lindsay and other SBEAS members looking at distant Buffleheads on the St. Joseph River
The battle for most abundant species on the river in the past several years always seems to be between Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and Canada Goose (Branta canadensis).  During this trip, we saw more Mallards. Because Mallards are so common, I rarely take the time to look at them in detail.  If we didn't have Mallards around here and I saw one in an exotic place on a birding trip, I would probably think that the males, with their iridescent green heads, yellow beaks, and chocolate brown chests were superbly attractive birds.
Mallards (male and female)
Although Canada Geese aren't as colorful, there is still good reason to search through gaggles of geese, as there are some more uncommon species that can sometimes be found amongst them.  Although we didn't see any similar species on Saturday, I was watching for Cackling Geese (the smaller version of the Canada Goose), Greater White-fronted Geese, and even for Brants.

Canada Geese
Along the river at Eberhart Golf Course we saw the highlight of the morning.  Lindsay and I were in the last car in a line of members entering the property.  We were following the group and watching the river when a duck that was clearly not a Mallard flew in front of us.  Lindsay quickly identified the bird in flight as a Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula).  I hit the brakes and fumbled for the camera; meanwhile, the bird landed and swam farther and farther away from us.  By the time I was able to get photos, he was contently as far away from us as possible on the opposite bank of the river.  Common Goldeneye is one of the duck species that used to be much more common on the St. Joseph River in winter.  They are said to spend winters as far north as possible, so long as there is open water.  I wonder if the large rafts that we once had here now winter further north as a result of a warming climate.

A distant Common Goldeneye (male) 
Another surprise of our outing was seeing several Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) in a wet spot along the road at the Mishawaka Riverwalk.  The two common inland gulls around here are Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) and Herring Gull, with the former being much more common than the latter.  The typical parking lot gull is the Ring-billed Gull, and that's what I expected to see as we got closer and saw a flock of gulls along the road, but a good proportion of the gulls we saw at this location were Herring Gulls.

Herring Gull
For comparison, below is a shot of Ring-billed Gulls from the same location.  Herring Gulls are larger and have thicker bills.  They also have pink legs (as compared to the yellow-green legs of Ring-billed Gulls).

Ring-billed Gulls
Thanks to Brian Miller for leading another successful field trip.


Beth said...

I was happy and surprised to see a couple of wood ducks in our little pond one day. Very distinctive!

Hey, I'm reading a lot about the snowy owl influx into much lower latitudes. Apparently they've been seen in our area. Have you gotten to see one yet? I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Scott Namestnik said...

When did you see the Wood Ducks?

Yes, it's a huge invasion year for Snowy Owls. I almost took a photo of the one in the Potato Creek State Park nature center yesterday to do a post on them. No, I haven't seen one this year, but I haven't done much chasing of the ones that have been seen, either. There was one seen at Potato Creek, and I looked a bit for that, but it was only seen once more after the original observation and not again. There was one seen last week flying over Granger. I've heard reports of a few more around here this winter. Keep looking!

Heather@RestoringTheLandscape.com said...
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