Bird Lady Blog

September 27, 2012

I Miss the Grosbeaks


Sometime in mid-to-late August the Black-Headed Grosbeaks disappeared.  They used to frequent my seed feeders daily.  First in the spring were the male and female – black, orange, white – stocky birds that made a bright impression on you right away.  Then came the family.  The two juveniles showed up at the tray feeder, following one of the parents, and in the beginning they would shake and fluff their feathers, beaks open, expecting to be fed.  This behavior is what ensured they would survive in the nest, but now that they fledged and were in the real world, they had to learn a new behavior – how to fend for themselves.

The parent ignored their begging and instead took some seed from the feeder and showed them how to peck and feed themselves.  I am sure this was just but one instance of teaching behavior – most of the time these birds were going to have to find real food in the real forest.  They could not just depend on “people food” if they were to thrive.

Then suddenly they were gone. No more Black-Headed Grosbeaks at my feeder.  They had begun their long journey to Mexico for winter migration.  There they will consume many berries, insects, spiders, snails, and seeds. They are one of the few birds that can eat the poisonous Monarch Butterfly.  In central Mexico, where Monarch Butterflies and Black-Headed Grosbeaks both spend the winter, the Grosbeaks are one of the butterflies’ few predators. Toxins in the Monarch Butterflies make them poisonous to most birds, but Black-headed Grosbeaks and a few other birds can eat them. The birds feed on Monarchs in roughly eight-day cycles, most likely to give themselves time to eliminate the toxins.  In my own non-scientific assessment, I find it interesting that both the Black-Headed Grosbeaks and Monarch Butterflies have the same coloration:  black, orange, and white.

It was a great summer for birding – Red-Faced Warbler, Cassin’s Finch, Red-Crossbill, Ruddy Duck, and the first Munds Park Bird Walk that we held in July.  The Northern Arizona Audubon Society held its annual Board of Directors’ planning meeting at the Pinewood Country Club for the second year in a row.  More people are learning that they should not put red food coloring in the sugar water in their hummingbird feeders, and more people are conscious of how to bird-proof their windows to prevent birds from flying into them.  We will have a reminder next spring on what you can do to make your home a more bird-friendly place.

In the meantime, the Black-Headed Grosbeaks will be wintering in Mexico, and I’m betting that our Pinewood News editor will run into them while she winters on and off there as well.  Have a great rest of the year, everyone, and see you in 2013.

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Ruddy or Not?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Munds Park Birding @ 8:37 pm
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Photo Courtesy of Cindi Shepard

So one Tuesday morning in August I was sitting in my office in Scottsdale writing a client report and I received a phone call from a very excited person in Munds Park:  “Margaret, we’re on the Golf Course on Hole #1 and the pond on the left has a really beautiful duck – with a blue beak!  Do you know what it is?  Is it some exotic species?”    Now keep in mind that the use of a cell phone on any golf course is frowned upon by golfers, but obviously this golfer was a bird enthusiast as well, and she just had to know what she was looking at!  The “blue beak” was a dead giveaway.  I confidently answered, “You are looking at a Ruddy Duck”.  In my early days of birding I was not able to identify ducks well at all, but over the years I spent time at the Phoenix Zoo’s ponds during the winter to see all the species of migrating ducks.  A blue bill is a give-away for a Ruddy Duck.  You would think it would be called “Blue-Billed Duck”, but no, that’s not how it works.

The Ruddy Duck is one of several fresh water diving ducks that have erect tails when at rest – so their group is actually called “stiff tailed ducks”.  This photo taken by Cindi Sheppard on a Sunday afternoon later in the week while we golfed is a great example of why the name “stiff-tailed duck”.  These ducks rarely leave the water because their legs are set so far back in their body, making them awkward and vulnerable on land.

Our male Munds Park Ruddy Duck seemed to have a mate around because later in that week we saw another diving, but duller, duck nearby.  However, since we were supposed to be golfing that Sunday and not birding, I didn’t get to stick around and make a positive identification.  Male Ruddy Ducks are quiet beautiful:  a brilliant rusty-brown back and sides (hence the name “Ruddy”), a black head with white sides, and of course the blue bill.  Females are much duller, brown/gray, and do not have the blue bill.

Ruddy ducks are monogamous and typically raise one brood of about eight eggs per year.  The female incubates the eggs.  If this pair bred, they may have done so on Lake Odell.  During our Munds Park bird walk on July 15th this year, we did sight a male Ruddy Duck, so perhaps this pair successfully bred here.  Next year we will want to be on the look-out for ducklings.

Our Ruddy Ducks will most likely be migrating soon.  They spend their winters in the Pacific coastal states and western coast of Mexico.  They are thought to travel at night.  To me, migration is a wonder; all the activity while we are sound asleep in our beds, not aware of the many waterfowl and other birds flying overhead to get to a warmer climate before winter sets in.

Oh, and by the way, there is actually a “Blue-Billed Duck”, one of the related species of our Ruddy Duck, and it is found and is named that way in Australia.  One thing about writing these articles – I learn something new each time!  I hope you do, too.

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