Killbuck Marsh Migration

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup

Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area is a 5,700 acre state-owned alluvial swamp stretching from the outskirts of Wooster all the way to Holmesville. It’s a very happy place for waterfowl, but not a very good place for farming or human housing, so I’m in favor of expanding the Wildlife Area as budget permits.

Ruddy Duck Makes a Landing next to Lesser Scaups

By my count, in a chilly 45 minutes near Shreve earlier this month I saw: American Black Duck, American Coot, Blue Winged Teal, Buffalohead, Canada Goose, Cardinal, Great Blue Heron, Horned Grebe, Ring-Necked Duck, Red-Tailed Hawk, Ruddy Duck, Tree Swallow, and a Muskrat.

Horned Grebe

The Horned Grebes were my favorite.  Squat bodies covered with hairy feathers, and faces comically painted with a yellow stripe and some sloppily applied pink lipstick, they dive completely underwater, popping up in unexpected places.

Horned Grebe taking a dive

The waterfowl just seem more exotic than what we get on our little pond.  The Ruddy Ducks have blue bills, and the elegantly brown and green Northern Shovelers, which were flying around in great flocks, have a schnozz like Jimmy Durante.

Northern Shovelers in Snow

Compared to most of the other ducks, a pair of Mallards look downright pedestrian, but with his iridescent green head and old-fashioned DA, the Mallard drake, and his demure but smartly-patterned hen, were far more stylish than a very plain looking pair of Black Ducks.

Mallard Ducks

Many of the flocks contained multiple kinds of duck. In one mass landing, I captured Bufflehead, Ring-Necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, and some Tree Swallows.

Bufflehead, Ring-Necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Tree Swallow

It was a real workout for me and my new telephoto.  In a snowy 90 minutes, I managed to get identifiable photographs of some of 12 different birds I saw. I’d already spent a couple hours taking photos in the nearby Ken Miller Supply Museum looking at old oilfield tools and tractors, so I was ready to head back home to the digital darkroom.

Muskrat

These photos were taken late in the afternoon of April 9, 2016, using the Canon 7DII DSLR and Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens. For most of these shots, I sat inside the pickup truck, and rested the lens on the door to keep it stead.  All processing in light room.

Fowl Weather

Monday, March 28th, 2016

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The anticipation of capturing something photographically inspires me to seek out new experiences.  Intellectually, I realized that Heiser Hollow was only a few miles from a major motel for migratory waterfowl , but until I bought a long telephoto lens, I’d never explored the opportunity.

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The Killbuck Creek is the primary drain for the western half of Wayne, Holmes, and Coshocton County.  Thousands of years ago, it flowed from south to north, but the glaciers changed all that, forcing the Killbuck into the Mississippi watershed, and filling up the 80 mile valley with alluvial silt and muck. The ice didn’t quite make it to the Appalachian foothills of Heiser Hollow, but where the glaciers stopped, a short five miles away, they left a really nice place for ducks.   As described by the Ohio DNR “the wetlands in the Killbuck Creek Valley are the largest complex of wetlands remaining in Ohio, away from Lake Erie.” 

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A day earlier, I’d seen some kind of exotic looking water bird when driving to town (‘exotic looking’ meaning something other than the wood ducks, mallards, geese, and herons that we see on our pond).  In spite of the snow, I decided to hitch my new telephoto to my DSLR and see what I could see.   On the theory that the birds were used to seeing lots of vehicles, I figured I could just sit comfortably in the pickup cab and shoot out the window. 

American Coot

It didn’t take me long to find some geese. The lower Killbuck wildlife area crawls with the things.  I found a few shy Wood Ducks, hiding in the weeds.  I startled a Blue Heron, and he flew off to the middle of the swamp where I couldn’t follow him.  So I drove around to another position and found something with a bright white beak swimming along the shore.  I followed him around for awhile, and managed to get a good enough view to identify him as an American Coot.

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Nearby the coot were were a couple of little jobs that I couldn’t really make out, until they broke cover and headed into some open water.  Pie-Billed Grebes are divers, and these perky little swimmers with their big heads and striped little beaks didn’t seem to mind the snow at all.  Now it was starting to get exotic for me.   I’ve watched loons dive in Ontario, popping up far away from where they submerged, and I’ve sat and watched some kind of diving duck in Lake Zurich, but I’ve never seen a show like this in Ohio.  I spent at least 20 minutes watching 4 of them disappearing and reappearing as dripping water, they moved out of camera range.

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Then a much nicer proportioned pair of birds, with a much more elegant paint job, appeared.  Ring-Necked Ducks may have been named by the same guy who named Red-Bellied Woodpeckers—there are so many more obvious characteristics that could have been chose.  They apparently are divers also, but all they did was float around the emerging lily pads, with the drake’s glowing amber eye keeping track of his mate.

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My favorite find of the day was a pair of Hooded Mergansers, which I found in a smaller pool while driving home. Like the other ducks, the hen was much less gaudily colored than her mate, but both of them had fantastic headdresses, feathering out behind their ears.  The drake had striking black and white racing stripes, accented with a bright yellow eye. I could have watched them for hours, but they got shy under all the attention and soon flew off.

Make Way for Ducks

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

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We’ve been seeing wood ducks regularly all week, but we hadn’t seen any mallards until this morning.  Migratory fowl are always interesting, and welcome, but we didn’t realize there was going to be trouble.  I blame it on the female mallard.  She hopped up on an old cherry tree, half submerged along one side of the pond, and started letting it all hang out. She was primping, preening, and working those duck breasts big time.

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I should start at the beginning.  Today was a very typical rainy spring day. One you might say it was a perfect day for ducks.  After .33” of rain, on top of sodden ground, the pond was slowly taking on a light brown stain as silty water flowed in from the sandstone falls further upstream.  The ducks had begun arriving early , apparently not aware of the change in clocks last night.  We hadn’t seen more than 4 at a time this year, but this morning, we had at least 3 pair of wood ducks, floating, paddling, dabbling, and then grazing on the far side of the pond dam.  And then a pair of mallards arrived.

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The hen quickly perched herself on the cherry branch, and started putting it on—or taking it off, as the case may be. Its hard to tell with ducks.  Either way, she put on show for the lads, stretching, and contorting, doing a Daisy Duck dance for the drakes.  The wood ducks all pointed themselves towards that end of the pond and started paddling over to the perch.  A wood duck hen made a small commotion at the opposite end of the branch, but a drake pushed her out of the way.

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Another wood duck drake swam around the corner while the first one perched himself on the same branch, and started edging sideways closer towards the larger mallard hen.  Several curious female wood ducks floated around, apparently curious.  At this point, I should point out that while there are significant aesthetic differences between the two species, the plumbing is relatively compatible.   It turns out that duck crossbreeding is a recognized problem, at least from the point of view of the wildlife managers.

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One particular drake was having none of it. He sped across the pond and, in his own duckish way, Donald made it clear to the other males that he had first dibs (dabs?) on Daisy.

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With an open beak, some stretching of the neck, and a beady eyed staredown, the mallard called fowl, and the smaller woodies retreated.

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This left the mallard couple alone together on the preferred perch.  The drake stood half in the water, not looking at the hen, but perhaps communicating his feelings.  The 3 pair of wood ducks continued to hover around in the water, approaching several times, and then retreating after a gesture from the mallard male.

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Perhaps the mallards were embarrassed, or maybe this just isn’t a completely comfortable spot for ducks who prefer avoiding trees. Once the female had finished drying and combing her feathers, they took off, leaving the pond to the wood ducks.

Wild Life on the Gopher Trail

Friday, May 10th, 2013

Snapper in our Pond

In its second spring, a growing variety of wild life has become accustomed to the cabin, making my downstairs office a sort of wildlife blind (one that happily includes cold beer and Internet access). A constant stream of wild animals have been parading past my sliding door.

The groundhogs have been the most aggressive of the bunch, wandering across the cement pad that comprises the lower porch, chewing on the Weber grill cover, sampling the taste of my floor mat, knocking over the broom, and curiously staring into my office. Several of these annoying and destructive steroidal rats were hurried back towards their burrow with the assistance of Sir Stinger of CCI. One volunteered to help feed nesting buzzards’ hungry chicks. A couple squirrels were sighted, apparently planning on chewing up some window caulk.  The show isn’t just about hungry rodents.  A turkey hen strutted past my glass door two mornings in a row. Last year’s disappointed phoebes have found comfortable nesting niches on the cliff face of our front porch.

The pond has been incredibly active with fish, fowl, and a never-ending stream of reptiles. After a long winter, when they depart to parts unknown, its always reassuring to see the bluegills and bass sunning themselves just under the surface.  We often see a snapping turtle, but this is the first year that I’ve seen two at the same time: a big one and a ginormous one, both covered with layers of gunk that would embarrass some of the less aggressive turtles, two of which spent most afternoons neatly sunning on a rock on the far side of the pond.  Hoping for an extended turtle dance, the two snappers mostly ignored each other, with only one very short turtle-in-your-face-wiggle-the-flappers moment. One day, I saw a black snake quickly swim across the width of the pond.

Freshly Landed Geese

There were some wood ducks and mallards, but not anywhere near as many as earlier in the year.  The small and agile ducks don’t seem to have much trouble dealing with our relatively short landing field, although I find it somewhat disconcerting to even consider that ducks would have claws, let alone seeing them sitting in trees. It just doesn’t seem natural.

Landing requires a much higher level of effort from the larger birds. I was walking around the back of the pond on a Sunday afternoon when a noisy pair of geese approached, gears down.  Sighting me just as they began their flare out, they set off the klaxons and pulled up, without touching water or tree. I was standing in front of the cabin when a blue heron arrived.  These slow and elegant fliers seem to struggle even more with our tree lined pond than do the geese.  He made a short field landing and spent a couple minutes near the painted turtles, before my telephone conversation disturbed him and he took off.  The smallest of the water birds, who takes our tight quarters in stride, the kingfisher, doesn’t seem to be a regular visitor yet this year.

Visibility is rapidly dwindling as the trees finishing leafing out, a magic process reversing the apparent shrinkage of Heiser Hollow that takes place every Fall when the leaves drop.  The ubiquitous buzzards were visible every day. Although mostly silent, their wings make a distinct swooping sound when they fly through our woods and across the pond.  A red-tailed hawk has been a regular visitor. One day I saw him dive on some hapless rodent, while a pair of mallards lazily snoozed only 20 feet away, seemingly oblivious to the carnivorous drama taking place just up the hillside. 

With the trillium in full bloom, and the ground carpeted with bluets and spring beauties, the season of life has returned to Heiser Hollow.

Duck, duck, goose

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Canada Geese

55 Acres of woodland crawls with animals, most of which are nearly invisible during the summer.  Our little half acre pond is full of swimming and wriggling things, but the tight approach path mostly discourages larger water fowl. 

Given that most aquatic birds continue to fly right on by, seeking larger watering holes that aren’t located in deep wooded valleys, I was motivated to grab my binoculars one morning last week when it turned out that a mallard drake was attached to an expanding ring of ripples.  He paddled around on the far side of the pond by himself, and given that ducks tend to be social beasts, I wasn’t surprised when a second one splashed down.  What did surprise me was the crest on the its head. This was no mere mallard. It turned out to be a female wood duck. I haven’t seen a wood duck down here since I was a kid, and I immediately regretted not following through on my plans to turn some of the scrap cedar cabin trim into a wood duck nesting box (punctuate those 4 words as you see fit).

Could this be some sort of illicit liaison, with the amorous  amphibians taking advantage of the relative seclusion of our small body of water to spend some time away from the beady spying eyes of their quacked up families? As it turns out, there is a reason they call mallards dabblers, but in this particular case, the female woodie treated the male with studied indifference, climbing up on shore and poking around while he continued to float placidly in the pond without any apparent sign of arousal.

Geese are much less subtle than the ducks, like Bombay taxicabs, seemingly unable to move without honking.  We frequently hear their calls as they fly overhead to the larger pond next door, but several times last week, a pair of geese dialled in some extra flap and made the steep descent to take a gander at our pond.  One day they spent a good two hours on the far side of the pond, floating around, snacking on God knows what, and standing on top of rocks, honking.  Although they did make one or two follow up visits, the female was eventually heard to say “I want to be closer to my flock, and besides, something smells funny, here.” Not wanting to get his goose cooked, the male agreed that there were other sites that had better exposure, and that was the last I saw of them.

At this point in this blog entry, I was going to start rhapsodizing about raptors and the beauty of blackbirds, but a pair of geese has just now landed in the back of the pond and is noisily advertising its presence. While I can’t verify that it’s the same pair that was here last week, they are in the same spot as shown six days ago in the photo above, directly across from my office window on some mossy rocks on the east bank of the pond.  They’ve done a bit of grazing, both below the water and on land, but mostly, they are just standing on rocks, honking, which seems rather purposeless.  I suppose they would think the same of me, if they could see me sitting at my laptop.

A flock of Canada geese is annoying, but a pair is charming, and its nice to think that we might see them on a regular basis. As long as they don’t bring all their friends.  A nesting pair might be fun, although geese get aggressively territorial when they have young. Our pond doesn’t seem like the sort of open wetlands that they prefer. The design and care means that it isn’t surrounded by water plants, so I don’t think it has any suitable nesting material.  The Killbuck bottoms south of Millersburg are dotted with dozens of large mounds of vegetation, most of which are punctuated with a standing goose this week.  Maybe this pair is just using our pond as a quiet place to get away from the flock.  Butts up!