Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Winter is Here: Ducks, Meadowlarks and TV Personalities are Spotted in the SC Lowcountry

Its been a busy fall.  Work culminated last weekend with our annual fundraising event which this year featured some new activities and attractions including burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) flying demonstrations, Harris Hawks on Ice (we flew our male harris hawk during the intermission of the SC Stingrays hockey game), and a visit from wildlife education legend Jungle Jack Hanna. All went very well including flying from the 18th green of Bulls Bay Golf Club which was admittedly a lot of fun despite the stresses. It was a real pleasure meeting and working with one of the legends in wildlife conservation education.  He exceeded expectations.

In the past week, we have taken every opportunity to decompress following the mad rushes and surging ulcers.  Jen needed help and we all needed mindless activities, so the Swallow Tailed Kite monitoring project mailers got labeled, stamped, folded, stuffed, mis-labeled, sealed, alphabetized to locate the mis-labeled (all 500 of them) and finally dropped in the mail.  Thats what we get for trying to help.

photo from wikipedia of  Sturnella magna 
The staff and I have also taken time to look at some birds.  We have a group of about 10 Eastern Meadowlarks (Sturnella = little starling magna = big)  foraging regularly in the short grass of our large flying field and being chased around by a male Falco sparverius that has taken up residence along the field edge.  These beautiful starling like birds can literally disappear in the grass at a moment's notice  which is helpful when being stalked by kestrels..  As with many "eastern" bird species, Sturnella magna has a "western" counterpart, Sturnella neglecta,  found west of the Mississippi river.  Apparently, J.J. Audubon chose the specific name "neglecta" to reflect the fact that it took close to a century for the western meadowlark to be recognized as a separate species by ornithologists.

Audubon's Take on the Ruddy Duck
As I am reminded from the shotgun blasts I can hear from my desk, it is also duck season. I learned to appreciate ducks from a cold, dark, wet blind early in my college years.  They were my gateway bird.  Watching a flock of mallards descend toward the puddle by inverting almost simultaneously  being in the center of a flock of 20,000 snow geese (Chen = Greek for wild goose caerulescens = Latin for becoming blue from the "blue" color of the dark morph) descending on a rice field in the Texas prairie are two experiences I can point to that led me to where I am today.  Look for the "blue" geese in the video. 

While we can't count on being surrounded by thousands of snow geese in Awendaw any time soon, we have observed five or six duck or duck like species in the ponds around the Center over the last week.  The most prevalent are the ruddy ducks (Oxyura = sharp or pointed tail jamaicensis).  Others viewing them this week referred to them as "so cute."  Those words didn't come out of my mouth.  They are cool little birds with tails pointing up at a 45 degree angle and we have tons despite all the shooting.  The male's beak changes color to a sky blue in the breeding season.  Like coots (Fulicka = Latin for coot! americana), the ruddy ducks are not strong in the "take off department" and therefore dive to avoid predatory attacks.  Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus = salt eagle leucocephalus =  white headed) love to eat them and we have had several great opportunities to watch the game unfold as it does on hundreds of ponds in South Carolina all winter.  Of course I didn't get any photos or video of the events.

I will leave you this time with some video (really poor video taken with my smart phone) of one of our newer demonstration birds.  This is a hybrid of two species of falcon found in the US.  Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus =  Latin for a "rustic countryman") are a holarctic species (which means found in the "wholearctic") are prized for their size but not their tolerance for heat and humidity. Prairie falcons (Falco mexicanus) pursue in the open spaces in a variety of meteorological  situations including hot and humid.  Mix one part each and enjoy the combination.