At Home in the Wetlands

Two bird species that have become regular fixtures in the Wetlands, at least during the winter, are Red-shouldered Hawk and Hooded Merganser. Both species can be seen daily, or nearly so, depending on the weather conditions.

The Red-shouldered Hawk is present year-round and is the most common hawk species seen at the Museum, often hunting from a perch somewhere in the Wetlands or up in the swamp between Catch the Wind and Explore the Wild on the back side of the trail that winds through those areas. In winter, due in part to the lack of leaves on the trees, the hawk is a bit more obvious as it sits silently (most of the time these hawks are quite boisterous) in one of the Wetland’s Willows ready to pounce on any frog, small rodent, or bird that happens to make a false move.

Red-shouldered Hawk silently perched six feet above the waters of the Wetlands.
Red-shouldered Hawk silently perched six feet above the waters of the Wetlands.

While I stood and watched the perched hawk (no more than 20 feet or so beyond the path) hoping to see it in action, a Red-tailed Hawk called loudly and persistently from above. Red-taileds are another hawk regularly seen during winter. Red-tails are larger that red-shouldereds. They are also typically much less vocal, and I thought it odd that this one was sounding off so with such gusto.

Red-tailed Hawk soaring above the Wetlands.
Red-tailed Hawk soaring above the Wetlands.

Apparently, the Red-shouldered Hawk thought the other hawk’s enthusiasm was odd as well as it seemed distracted by the Red-tailed Hawk, peering up at it as it circled above.

Red-shouldered Hawk peering up at a very exciting Red-tailed Hawk circling above.
Red-shouldered Hawk hawking a very exciting Red-tailed Hawk circling above.

I never discovered why the Red-tailed Hawk was so excited, but I saw it (I assume it was the same bird) later that day circling above the Wetlands with another Red-tailed Hawk. It was a rather spring-like day and perhaps the hawk’s display was a premature (by a couple of months) attempt at courtship.

The Hooded Mergansers arrived on the scene the first week in November. Their numbers fluctuate between two and about a dozen, although I’ve seen as many as 15 in the Wetlands.

Hooded Merganser taking up their old familiar resting and preening spot in the Wetlands.
Hooded Mergansers taking up their old familiar resting and preening spot in the Wetlands.

When these ducks arrive they begin to form pair-bonds and can put on quite a show in their courtship displays. The males (from two to as many as six or more) follow the female around the water, strutting, pumping and chasing around, at the same time uttering a rolling, croaking sound as they vie for the female’s attention.

Male Hooded Mergansers surround a lone female (dark object in center) as they vie for her attention.
Four male Hooded Mergansers surround a lone female (dark object in center) as they vie for her attention.
Males strut their stuff while female swims by.
Males strut their stuff while the female swims by.
The birds give a low-pitched croak-like call as they literly bend over backwards in an attempt purswaid the object of their attention, the female.
The birds give a low-pitched croak-like call as they literally bend over backwards in an attempt to persuade the object of their attention, the female, that they are worthy.

The birds don’t actually mate at this time, but simply form the bonds that will hold them together until the breeding season arrives. The Copulatory Display (and actual mating), will probably take place in February or March just before these birds head back north, and is quite another show entirely. Oddly, considering the effort put into the pair-bonding, the male departs the nesting area after incubation begins, leaving the parenting duties to the female.

2 responses to At Home in the Wetlands

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    Wendy says:

    Great pictures, as usual, Greg! Thanks for the link to the hooded merganser sounds.

    • Greg Dodge, Ranger
      Greg Dodge, Ranger says:

      Thanks Wendy, glad you enjoyed the pictures and audio link. The sound the mergansers make is rather subtle and can be easily overlooked as it blends in with all the other ambient noises going on out-of-doors. Speaking of outdoor ambient noises, I heard some Spring Peepers in Explore the Wild the other day as well and what I thought was an Upland Chorus Frog. Shouldn’t be long before they start in full tilt.

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