Wednesday, June 24, 2020

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This was the most colorful of the male Dickcissels in the area last week. Dickcissels were the last species to arrive in the area this spring.
An active Wilson’s Snipe seemed to be using wing-raising as part of its territorial display that included calling from its perch.
This wing raising behavior may have been an individual behavior rather than part of an innate behavioral display.
A Marbled Godwit in an earnest territorial flight that included a variety of large shorebirds.
An attractive Blue-winged Teal brood was one of 18 broods observed last week.

The last species to arrive on the wide open native prairie south of my office were Dickcissels that seamlessly fit in among territorial Bobolinks, Clay-colored Sparrows, and other songbirds. Even though they were last to arrive, they arrived singing, and I’ve never seen more in the area. Three and four years ago there were none; the past two years I have found two pockets of territorial Dickcissels, but last week they took over an enormous area that stretches for miles across the ultra-green prairie areas.

Male Dickcissels have already provided ample photo opportunities as they sing from nearby perches, but Bobolinks are quite another story. I so enjoy watching and listening to male Bobolinks performing their flight displays, and have long hoped to photograph the tiny birds in flight, but it’s been impossible to even get close this year, which is par for the course during recent years – but I’ll keep alert and keep trying.

New Snipe Behavior

Having photographed several Wilson’s Snipe in the area this year, and during previous years, I was a bit hesitant about stopping to photograph yet another. The snipe was beautifully illuminated in the evening light surrounded by green prairie, and when it called in a low voice I began photographing, but the surprise happened when the snipe suddenly raised its wings over and over again, even turning with its wings raised.

As the snipe raised its wings, it made a bit of a flash as sunlight reflected from the lighter-colored underside of the wing feathers. While engaged in repeated wing raising, the snipe stopped at one point to preen feathers on its back, which could be a displacement display used in connection to the wing raising. All this happened in the span of just 12 seconds as other snipe called nearby. Then the snipe raised its wings one more time as it took a low flight over the adjoining wet meadow.

Later, I searched for information about such a display in Birds of the World (, which should provide the most comprehensive account of the natural history and behavior of Wilson’s Snipe, but no wing raising displays while perched were described. Hmmm. Maybe it was an individual behavior activity, and not an innate behavioral display for the species as I originally imagined. Anyway, it was a fun photo opportunity to get a few unique action photos on a beautiful evening.

Ultra-territorial Shorebirds

In last week’s issue I mentioned encountering a few big sandpipers acting especially territorial about 7 miles south of my office. A couple nights later, I returned to the location, only to meet a highly territorial pair of Marbled Godwits standing on the road, calling. “C’mon guys, I’m just driving down the road,” I thought. Trying not to collide with the big sandpipers, and interested in taking advantage of the prime sunshine, I stopped to see what might transpire – and to ascertain if the territoriality had something to do with an active nest or new hatchlings.

I pulled off to the side of the road and got out of my vehicle to better assess the area and the birds, when an American Avocet came diving in on a straight line approach directly at me. It joined the flying, calling, circling, pair of godwits, who were soon joined by 2 Willets, 2 more godwits, and 3 more avocets – eventually followed by 2 more Willets. The mayhem that followed seemed to excite Wilson’s Phalaropes, Killdeer, and a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds into action, along with flybys by lone Franklin’s Gulls and Black Terns! “What’s going on guys?”

As before, I didn’t want to distress the birds any more than I already had, but I also wanted to see what the heck the great concern was about. As a wildlife biologist who specializes in nesting birds, I needed to try to uncover the reason for such intent behavior by such a diversity of species. It was quickly obvious that the grass was too high to see any hatchlings or nests, and most of the birds were originating from a recently flooded wet meadow more than a football field away on the other side of a low hill.

I hoped the birds would show me through their behavior the point of their concerns, but during my short stop, I could only imagine they were just very sensitive to any disturbance, whether mechanical, human, or otherwise. I did find it interesting that they put up something of a united front toward me, but showed no concern for other species that would be encroaching across a number of territorial “boundaries.”

In the meantime, I decided to make the most of the disturbance by photographing each of the species in flight over the course of three or four minutes. There was such an intense wind that the birds were putting on a spectacular aerial show, so it made for some fast-paced action until one by one the big sandpipers peeled away and returned to their preferred section of wet meadow, and the original pair of Marbled Godwits moved down the road behind me. A moment later, I was down the road ahead of me.

I must reflect that I don’t like to disrupt the normal behavior of birds, but in this case, I thought there might be some information to be gleaned by an inquisitive field biologist – and birder – and I managed a couple flight photos that may prove useful in identifying individuals as the nesting season progresses. Realistically, I don’t think any of these birds was nesting yet, but they sure were sensitively territorial. Hey, it’s a nice piece of shorebird property, so I can understand their possessiveness. [Postscript: The territorial activity of these shorebirds quickly dimmed day to day, and a few night later they no longer stood on the road or flew to the road during my approach. In retrospect, I have no idea why they had such an intense reaction to the approach of my vehicle.]

The Big Bang of Duck Broods Begins

A rare windless evening last Monday yielded sightings of three newly hatched Blue-winged Teal broods, numbering 10, 10, and 8 ducklings, plus I spied a Northern Pintail brood on the edge of a marsh the night before in spite of the intense wind.

On my way to Bismarck last week, I didn’t expect to see much brood action during midday, but just 18 miles west of home I caught the view of a female Wood Duck next to the road, swimming on the edge of new emergent aquatic plants – with a brood it appeared as I braked my vehicle from 65 miles per hour. I turned around and cautiously approached as the crested hen Wood Duck slowly moved into the open with her newly hatched ducklings following.

The Wood Duck brood was a delight to photograph, and when I looked away from my camera I saw a hen Blue-winged Teal with her tiny brood of newly hatched ducklings even closer. I switched gears and photographed the teal brood for a moment as they worked their way north along the vegetative edge; then turned my attention back to the Wood Ducks.

The Woodies hadn’t moved much, and when the female called calmly, a second brood of ducklings swam toward the hen and her initial brood. To my surprise, this full-size brood of 8 mixed in with the original 11 ducklings and the ensuing photos were a bit unbelievable; except that Wood Ducks are well known for “dump nesting.” This happens when one or more extra hens lay eggs in a nest, thereby creating a super-brood. With large cavity nest sites such a rare commodity in the area, it’s understandable that dump-nesting could have happened, and when I took a quick scan of the area, no potential nest sites were obvious.

Well, that was quite a surprise, and a fine beginning to my afternoon drive. Indeed, I spent some time on the edge of a little marsh photographing another Blue-winged Teal brood, and at a halfway point in my drive I decided to take a side road rather than the highway with the hope of finding a brood or two along the way. I was beginning to think the idea was a bust, when the unimaginable happened: A big bold female Canvasback was swimming in the open along the road with at least a couple ducklings around her! I wondered what her reaction would be as I turned around and slowly approached the edge of the roadside marsh.

I was thrilled that not only did the big Canvasback not over-react, she calmly followed her ducklings closer to my position. The 4 ducklings were about 5 days old and pretty active, diving and searching for food in 4 different directions, which made it hard to get much of a “family portrait.” Nonetheless, the light was pretty good, the female was beautiful and regal as she could be – a true Canvasback on a Prairie Marsh, as waterfowl biologist and author H. A. Hochbaum penned so many years ago.

Just as the Canvasbacks made their closest approach to my position, which was a treat, the big female took surprising exception with an American Coot, lunging at it menacingly over and over, forcing the coot to flee by running atop the water while flapping it wings to assist with its propulsion. After that, the big Can collected her brood and led them into a recess in the vegetation that rimmed the wetland, as if for an afternoon nap. I was thrilled to share that time with them, and continued westward.

I made my 7th weekly visit to the McKenzie area east of Bismarck, and was greeted by more duck broods and the usual variety of birds I’ve been enjoying the past several weeks. In all Friday, I found 18 broods, including 5 Mallards, 4 Northern Shovelers, 5 Blue-winged Teal, 2 Canvasbacks, the Wood Duck, and a Hooded Merganser brood. There were also umpteen coot broods, and at least 4 Pied-billed Grebe broods along the way. What fun I had – and I hope you have a wonderful first week of summer!

Article and photos by Paul Konrad

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