Friday, February 7, 2014

More than Just Mallards--Birding Adventure, Week 2

Here's a bird diagram with all of its different parts labeled
During Madison summers, male and female mallards and their ducklings can be found almost everywhere, but did you know that amongst these highly common ducks are a number of other less-well-known species? Grebes are tiny diving ducks that can be seen all over lakes Mendota and Monona, and in the spring and fall, Buffleheads will begin to gather by the dozen. This week in Birds of Southern Wisconsin, we're learning all about water fowl. The three Orders of birds we have to memorize are Anseriformes (swans, geese, and ducks), Gaviiformes (loons), and Podicipediformes (grebes). Alongside bird species, we're familiarizing ourselves with "bird topography." Bird topography is basically a nomenclature for the different physical parts of most birds. For example, the top of the head is referred to as the "crown," the back of the neck is the "nape," the sides are the "flanks," and so on. We're learning about bird topography so we can more accurately describe birds in the field. Instead of saying, "The bird has stripes on its wings and the top of its head is red," we can be more descriptive and precise by saying, "The bird has white wing bars and a red crown." This way, we will know exactly where to look for certain field markings and can more quickly find and identify the bird.

Field markings are useful tools for identification, especially when birds are very similar. For example, the Greater Scaup and Lesser Scaup look almost identical, but the Lesser Scaup has a "top knot," or tuft of feathers on the back of its head. Because size is difficult to determine in the field unless the two subjects are close to one another, such field markings are a more accurate way to determine the species of a bird. Phenology, the study of appearance, is a science that is made more exact with the addition of technical terms for specific features. In the field, birders rely on phenology, and bird topography makes our jobs easier.

Our lab session this week involved going to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Zoological Museum to view mounted specimens of all the birds that we'll be learning this semester. The Museum has over 24,000 avian specimens, some of which date back as far as 1845! It was very helpful to view the birds up close and examine their features more fully.

I am particularly fond of water fowl, so choosing a favorite bird out of this week's list is difficult for me. It is probably a tie between the Tundra Swan and Pied-billed Grebe. Tundra Swans are graceful and iconic, and
Tundra Swans

the first time I identified one I was over the moon. I happened to be on Lake Mendota in November of 2012 and it was snowing lightly. Mostly, I was amazed that a bird so large and, in my mind, so rare (though that is not quite true) could end up on the lake right next to my campus. It opened my eyes to the amazing biodiversity we experience right here in Madison.

Pied-billed Grebe
The Pied-billed Grebe on the other hand, is a tiny diving duck. They have big, lobed toes that are placed quite far back on their body. The placement makes them excellent swimmers, but they're more than a little clumsy on land. When I started birding, I saw one of these little guys sink quickly straight down into the water instead of diving and thought it was the funniest thing. When I started reading  about them, though, I learned that they actually do that when they feel threatened. They can quickly push all the air out from between their feathers and sink straight down like a submarine!

If you want to learn more fun facts about these birds, here's a list of the species we're learning with links to their All About Birds pages. You may want to listen to their calls, as well. I think waterfowl have some of the most amazing calls; for example, the Common Loon makes the most beautifully haunting call, while the Pied-billed Grebe sounds almost like a monkey.

Anseriformes: Anatidae (Anserinae)
Greater White-fronted Goose
Snow Goose
Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Tundra Swan
Trumpeter Swan

Anseriformes: Anatidae
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Common Merganser
Ruddy Duck

Gaviiformes: Gaviidae
Common Loon

Podicipediformes: Podicipedidae
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Eared Grebe

These orders of birds need open water, which is a bit scarce during these winter days in Wisconsin. They migrate further south, but they'll be back with us soon enough! Keep your eyes peeled for the first string of Canada Geese that may start coming back as early as next month.

Happy Birding!
Nature Net Intern

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