Back to Basics

There’s a wonderful old “Far Side” cartoon featuring a dog, Ginger, and its owner. The owner says to the dog, “OK, Ginger! I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!” But all the dog hears is, “Blah, blah, blah, Ginger. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Ginger.” What’s happening here makes me think of that cartoon. I suspect many people reading my blogs zero in on the pictures–consume the pictures, if you will–but have less interest in the text, if they read it at all. I’ve noticed that the blogs that are more picture-heavy are by far the most popular and that the ones featuring photo galleries are more popular still. But having said all that, I remain, for now, an unapologetic writer. And I’ll continue to write, in hopes that viewers will read!

The Elizabeth River

I devoted my last few blogs to our trip out West. Now, to allay some concerns out there…I might write about Aretha Franklin, or Beethoven, or California Condors, or the Wright Brothers. I might write about Broad-winged Hawks kettling in the Blue Ridge or the woes of the Washington Redskins. But the overarching focus continues to be the restored Elizabeth River in SE Virginia, and the wildlife, the bird life, and the people who are using it. The focus also continues to be the Elizabeth River Project and its myriad partners, who’ve worked so hard to make that restoration a reality. (Keep in mind, of course, that restoring the Elizabeth is an ongoing process, and that the work will only be complete when oysters the size of dinner plates are discovered in the Eastern Branch [cue the smiling emoji]).

Imperiled Birds

I brought up the condors again. If you haven’t done so already, please look at the last 2 blogs, starting with “The Thrill of a Lifetime,” about our trip out West to help with the release of critically endangered, captive-bred California Condors. “The Thrill of a Lifetime, Part Two,” features a wonderful–and memorable–video towards the end. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s powerful because those “big and majestic” birds were literally on the brink. (To a lesser degree, some of our local birds were on the brink as well. I think of the Brown Pelican and the Osprey. I think especially of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker [see “The Marvel of Bird Flight”]). It’s also powerful because the plan to rescue the California Condor by placing the remaining 22 birds in captivity was actually controversial at the time (cue double question marks, and double exclamation marks, too!!).

Speaking of big and majestic birds, though this bird would be quite small compared to a condor, here’s an early San Diego morning capture of a Long-billed Curlew in flight. These birds used to be common on the East Coast during migration, but would now be considered casual here (birds well outside of their range). Habitat loss is largely to blame, though market hunting played a role, too. This species is now imperiled, as the Brown Pelican and Osprey used to be, and as the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and California Condor still are.

Long-billed curlew in flight
Long-billed Curlew

The Bufflehead Duck

I posted a photo of a species that is definitely not imperiled, and is much smaller still–our smallest diving duck, and a cavity nester, to boot–in “The Thrill of a Lifetime.” It was a photo of a Bufflehead duck. I noted that these ducks are known colloquially as “chickadees of the duck world,” and “bisonheads,” because of their outsized heads. I also noted that the word “Bufflehead” is a contraction of  “buffalo” and “head.” Here’s a photo of a female swimming in the Elizabeth (Southern Branch in Chesapeake, VA). This photo, more than the other, highlights the bird’s disproportionately large head.

Female Bufflehead duck swimming
Female Bufflehead duck

If you’ve been reading my blogs, you’ll recall that I wrote a series of posts on bird flight: how birds launch into the air and how they stay in the air. The bird flight series began with “Designed to Fly,” and officially ended with “See a Plane, Thank a Bird.” Of course, we examined bird flight a bit further as we learned about the California Condor, a species that soars and seldom flaps and is dependent on wind currents and thermals.

Creating Thrust

In “Airborne,” the 4th post in the series, we looked at thrust: the force that propels a bird forward. Here’s what I wrote about it: “We’ve noted that it’s produced when birds jump from high places, (see “Flight Shots”) or flap like crazy (same section). Some birds also create thrust by running across the ground or the surface of the water.” Well, here’s an example of a Bufflehead duck doing just that. These photos may be a bit “high key,” but the high key photos enabled me to capture the bird’s eyes.

Bufflehead duck taking flight from the Elizabeth River
Male Bufflehead duck taking flight

As I’ve spent a considerable amount of time watching and photographing this species (watching, and taking good photos, go hand in hand), I’ve learned a lot about its behavior. For example, before these birds dive, they use their webbed feet and possibly their tails to push against the water. Remember Newton’s third law (see “A Bird’s Wings”)? When the birds push their feet against the water, this forces them up and almost out of the water, enabling them to plunge head first to catch their food: crustaceans, mollusks, or fish (the wintertime diet). Here’s a photo of a Bufflehead about to take a plunge:

Female Bufflehead duck about to dive
Female Bufflehead duck about to dive

And here’s the same bird plunging, not even a second later.

Female Bufflehead duck plunging
Female Bufflehead duck plunging

Alas, I didn’t get a shot of the tail as it disappeared beneath the surface. But in these 2 photos, you can at least see some of the aspects of the bird’s dive.

Not only have I learned about how this species dives and forages, but I’ve also learned that it can stay underwater for a long period of time (sometimes, almost 30 seconds) and that it can swim underwater amazingly fast. And here’s something else I’ve learned that doesn’t pertain to the species’ behavior: the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River must be reasonably healthy as it provides food and shelter for these wintering birds.

And This Just In

Some of you may have heard of “Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds” radio show. Ray Brown is an institution in New England. Consider listening to his recent radio show on the Bufflehead duck. You’ll get a kick out of the show and may get a bigger kick out of Ray. He begins talking about the duck 8 minutes in.

Quip, Question, Quote

“[We] are parts of nature. We are in and of nature–we’re not separate from it. Nature doesn’t exist on some other plane that we stand aside from. And what we do when we damage nature is damage ourselves.” Photographer James Balog, who created the documentary about climate change: “The Human Element.”


2 thoughts on “Back to Basics

    1. Hi Ellen, and thanks so much for reading. I haven’t really had a chance to “study” hoodies in the same way. They seem to be a bit more skittish (that may be one of the reasons). Also, I spend a lot of time on the banks of the Elizabeth–often at Elizabeth River Park. The hoodies in the area tend to stay in the more sheltered areas like nearby Scuffletown Creek and are seldom out in the river. The Buffleheads (bisonheads) frequent both places, but there is always a good number in the river. Hoodies’ and Buffleheads’ diets are a bit different. This may partly explain why the hoodies tend to stay in the creek, and the buffleheads are usually more numerous in the river. I hope this helps!


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