Sunday, March 04, 2007

Wind and Waterbirds

As I mentioned in a prior post, some redheads were reported in the course of the Great Backyard Bird Count, and were reported again this past week. Today I finally walked down to Constitution Gardens to look for them. Today was one of those changeable, blustery days typical of late winter with the sun going in and out of the constantly moving clouds. I have visited Constitution Gardens on such days before. The pond there is somewhat sheltered from the winds, so it provides an inviting resting point for waterfowl.

As reported, several redheads were in the Constitution Gardens lake. I counted six - four males and two females. Redheads are always a treat, so I stood and watched them bobbing in the midst of a small crowd of American wigeons, lesser scaup, and ring-necked ducks. Oddly enough, I have now seen redheads more frequently in DC than canvasbacks; that says more about the random character of finding waterfowl in this city than the species' relative abundance. Elsewhere on the lake, a few American coots with the lake's usual denizens. One was displaying the white underside of its tail; I am not sure of the meaning of this display - whether it is a sign of fear or a rush of hormones.

From Constitution Gardens, I walked past the WWII Memorial to the DC WWI Memorial. The reflecting pool was almost bone dry. A large flock of robins foraged in the leaves and bushes around the WWI Memorial. A small flock of juncos was also present, along with a small helping of white-throated and song sparrows.

The Tidal Basin held more lesser scaup, as well as both red-breasted and common mergansers. The biggest surprise was mammalian rather than avian. A beaver was sitting near the Tidal Basin's outlet bridge! Not having had a good look at one before, I was amazed by how large it was. Its presence may be bad news for the cherry trees, but I was certainly happy to see it.

Because of the strong northwest winds, birding along the river was nearly impossible. All I could find there were a few dozen lesser scaup. Conditions were better on the Washington Channel, which is more sheltered than the river side of East Potomac Park. There were yet more lesser scaup, the usual winter gulls, plus my first double-crested cormorants of the year (in D.C., anyway).

One reason I had pushed on to the river and the channel, even though I was somewhat tired by that point, was that I was hoping that I might find a pied-billed or horned grebe. The bad news is that I did not see either species. The good news is that I saw a red-necked grebe instead. Not only did I see one, but it was one of the best views I have had, of any grebe. Distinguishing winter-plumage red-necked and horned grebes can be tricky at a distance, but up close the differences in head and bill shape really stand out. This bird had the typical heavy and straight yellow bill that is typical of the red-necked variety, as well as the blocky head. (Horned grebes have a stubbier bill and more triangular head.)

It was a great day of birding, but by the time I got home, I was pretty worn out (thus the late post). While our temperatures are still in a relatively cold pattern, birds are clearly on the move. It is a trickle now, but in the next few weeks the pace will accelerate. If you live in Washington, go see the redheads and red-necked grebe while they are still around. With migration under way, they probably will not stay long.


Red-necked Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Canada Goose
American Wigeon
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Red-breasted Merganser
Common Merganser
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
American Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Northern Mockingbird
American Robin
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
American Goldfinch
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Common Grackle