Archive for the ‘Winter’ Category

It’s a snow-less winter so far, so it is not quite as colorless as this time last year. But nevertheless, the dull browns and grays are tiresome, and that is why this little spot of red I caught looking for food was a thrill over the holidays.

Pileated Woodpecker, Massachusetts, Dec 2011

This bird is called a Pileated Woodpecker. You can tell this particular one is a male because there is a red line from the beak to the throat (instead of a black one on females). The loud noise it makes pecking holes in trees looking for insects makes the woodpecker’s presence known. I wonder how its brain is protected from all that banging against a tree? As a child, I thought all woodpeckers were similar to the cartoon Woody Woodpecker (hence the title of this post), but I don’t think the woody woodpecker call is the same as the pileated one from nature.

This bird also brings to mind the drawing of pileated woodpeckers by John James Audubon (retrieved from wikicommons). In his drawing, you can see that they eat insects from trees and berries.  Females are on the top, males are on the bottom and you can get a gimpse of the white underside of the wings.

John James Audubon - Pileated Woodpecker


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The common mallard, or green-headed duck, is the type of duck we see on ponds and lakes, especially in urban parks.  The ducks near my apartment live in the Back Bay Fens where there is water and marshland and plenty of people to throw them some bread crumbs.

January in Boston, Massachusetts

I was so impressed with the color of these ducks’ heads, I had to take some pictures.  How bright and radiant the color green!  And how orange the bill and feet!

Common Mallard, Boston, MA in January

Male Common Mallards, January

You can tell he is in his mating plumage because of the green head. When not in mating season, the males look similar to the females with drab brown heads but still have the bright orange beaks.

The female ducks were nearby as well, brown with a blue stripe on the wings.

Male and Female Common Mallards, January in Boston

Common Mallards, Male and Female, January in Boston

I just learned about this new site, Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), and I think I’ll be using it much more from now on.  EOL has a good description of the common mallard and has several links to other sites with good information.

I also came across an interesting and different way of learning about ducks recently, specifically learning about their mating habits which were not what I imagined… I was listening to Science Friday on NPR, and the guest, Isabella Rossellini (an actress and film maker), was discussing her new show on the Sundance Channel (www.sundancechannel.com).  The series, called Seduce Me, describes the mating habits of several animals in a kind of funny way, acting them out with puppets and people.  After watching the duck episode I will never think of ducks the same again…(a little rated R, just to warn you!).  Check it out here.  In a nutshell: Male ducks have corkscrew penises and force copulation. The vaginal canals of female ducks have evolved to be like a maze – the male duck that the female would like to mate with will have a higher chance of successfully mating with her.  Pretty interesting!

Well it snowed here again today… not very much but enough to make my hopes of spring dampened a bit.  Snowdrops and crocuses are out, though, so spring is starting!  I can’t wait to post more about flowers.

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There hasn’t been a lot of nature to photograph and blog about lately here in Boston. We’ve been hit with so many snow storms it’s hard to keep track. One thing that I’ve enjoyed throughout this winter, though, is walking along the Fens and watching the ducks in the water. Although the common ducks (mallards) can be interesting and beautiful, especially in their winter mating plumage (I will post about them later), one duck stood out.

Smaller than the rest, swimming fast with a little waddle and a oddly shaped white head, this little duck was all by himself searching for something.

Male Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), February 2011, Boston, MA

For some reason I find diving ducks so fascinating!  I like to watch them dive and wait for them to return to the surface.  I caught this merganser taking a dive:

And then I caught him coming back to the surface:

This diving duck is called a Hooded Merganser. This one is male, you can tell because his head is white (females have brown heads, not white). It is also in its breeding plumage because his head was quite white (non-breeding, males have “dusky”-colored heads).  It looked to me like this duck’s head was a funny shape, but actually that is its crest, like a mohawk, which can be expanded or contracted.

A few facts about the hooded merganser:

  • The only merganser restricted to North America naturally
  • The smallest species of merganser in North America
  • Mergansers form pairs in early winter
  • They are short distance migrants and stick around as long as the ponds, lakes or rivers aren’t iced over
  • They dive for small fish, crustaceans and insects
  • They have their own genus, the Lophodytes

I love to learn the meanings of names, so I looked up the roots of the hooded merganser’s latin name.  Loph- means “crest”, which makes sense because of this bird’s quite unmistakable crest!

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