But today my favorite duck came home: our South Texas specialty, the Black-Bellied Whistling Duck. I heard my neighbor call from her porch, "The ducks are back!" and I ran out to see. First there was just one of these funny-looking guys standing on the top railing of the deck above our boat lift, and then another joined it. They flew across the deck, feet dragging and heads down in that funny way they fly for short distances, and peered down at the bird feeder they knew was there, having been daily visitors last summer. It seemed pretty obvious these two were returning home and not just stumbling upon a random feeder. Look at the photo above. These guys know what they're looking for.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are really cool ducks. I love the way their white eye rings make them look wide-eyed and curious. Those bright pink long legs and orange beaks seem cheerful and comical, and the coloring of their plumage is really quite beautiful: the chestnut brown backs, the black bellies and tails, the chestnut brown on top of the head and along the back of the neck, the white patches on the wings when they fly.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are year-round residents here in the Rio Grande Valley, but I don't know exactly where "ours" (okay, these are wild free creatures, but I might be a tad possessive of some of them) hang out all winter. At least one field guide suggests that they may move short distances south for the winter months from the northern part of their range, which would include Texas.
These ducks are very gregarious--see how social they look in the picture above, as if working the room, asking each other how their winter was. Last summer we began noticing, as we drove through Los Fresnos, the town south of here, that a huge constituency of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were always gathered on one particular roof at the town's main intersection. They looked like they were having a large but friendly town hall meeting.
I think it's possible that the dozen or so ducks that gathered daily at the feeder late last summer were all one family because at the first of the summer, it had been dinner for two. My field guides tell me that they lay as many as 16 eggs, usually in a tree cavity, that the young tumble out of the nest after only two days, and that they remain with their parents for up to eight weeks. This year I'm going to note details such as how many juveniles are at the feeder and how many adults. (One of my purposes in writing this blog is to keep track of what's happening with our birds and wildlife so I won't have such a vague recollection next year. There's just so much to see here that I haven't kept track very well in the past. All that is changing in 2010--I'm determined to keep blogging all the details of our yard birds! Maybe its scientific curiosity and maybe it's just nosiness, like keeping track of what the neighbors are doing and forming hypotheses about their comings and goings!)
Five minutes later a group of about twenty Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flew east along the river, whistling of course, until they spotted the original two and circled back around, landing on the roof of the neighbor's deck.
The ducks are not the only returning birds. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers perched on the electric wires today and Purple Martins soared over martin houses to the east and the west of us. I saw the first Barn Swallow of the year this afternoon and another male Hooded Oriole was on the Bottlebrush tree -- two Hooded and two Altamiras at the same time. Now that's colorful!
Our bottlebrush tree (also known as callistemon) is sometimes literally filled with birds when it is in bloom. Last fall I counted five male Orchard Orioles, six male Baltimore Orioles, one male Hooded Oriole and three female orioles of undetermined species at one time in the neighbor's small bottlebrush, which I can see as I sit on my front deck. (Though most of our plants are native, the bottlebrush is not--it's native to Australia. I've checked lists of invasive nonnatives and can't find anything that identifies it as invasive in Texas. One internet source questions its invasiveness in California, though, so I need to find out a little more.)
When you look at the oriole photos below, you'll see bottlebrush blooms. They look like brushes you'd use to clean a hummingbird feeder, don't they? The little spots of yellow at the ends of the "brush bristles" are pollen. Yesterday I saw a yellow-faced brown bird on the tree and was startled until it dawned on me that I was looking at a House Sparrow that had been sticking its beak in the blooms, getting a face full of pollen. (Looking for insects? Sampling the nectar? A Red-winged Blackbird was doing the same thing. I'm not sure what they were eating.)
A couple of days ago, I took photos of orioles feeding on nectar in the backyard bottlebrush. I had promised a good photo when I had good light. Getting a photo was harder than I first thought it would be because, as it turned out, there were two orioles in the tree! Can you tell which of them is a male Hooded Oriole and which is an Altamiras?
We'll call this first one (in the photo above) Oriole A. Look closely at the pattern of the black on its face, its bill shape, its wing.
We'll call this one Oriole B. Is it the same species of oriole as A?
We'll say this is Oriole C. Remember to look at the top of the wings. (I talked about how these orioles are a little different in an earlier blog.)
Okay, identify the oriole in each photo!
Can you see why I was getting confused as I tried to take a picture of our newly-returned Hooded Oriole--and didn't know an Altamira Oriole was feasting in the same tree?
Study the differences in the two orioles
(if you are my grandchildren, that's your assignment!) and write your answers in the comments. I'll tell you the right ones in a day or two.
I love orioles and could watch them all day. Tomorrow I'm going to try to take a photo from a video I have of a Fuertes's Oriole that spent two summers with us. (I know that will not be a good photo, but I am going to try anyway.) It was a beautiful bird, like an Orchard Oriole but tawny gold or "old gold" or ochre where the Orchard Oriole is brick red. (My old field guide to Mexican birds calls it the Ochre Oriole for its exquisite coloring.) Quite a few people down here saw it in our yard, but no one took a still photo as far as I know. That was ten years ago before so many people had cameras that could focus in on shy birds singing in treetops or splashing in a distant bath. I've been wishing I had a photo. A few weeks ago I looked at the Texas bird committee's website, and saw a photo link to the Fuertes's Oriole (which so far is still considered a distinct subspecies of the Orchard Oriole), and I was excited thinking I'd click and find a photo taken of this bird that has been seen in the U.S. only a couple of times. But when you click the link, you see a dead museum specimen that was taken--which means shot and killed--in Brownsville a century ago. Thank goodness we have cameras to shoot with now. Anyway, looking at that sad photo of a dead bird made me wish I could have taken a photo of the vividly alive and beautiful little oriole that sang from the treetops in our yard those two summers. (I have seen on the internet a copy of the painting Luis Agassiz Fuertes did of the bird, which he discovered in Mexico. I'll see if I can find it again and link to it from here.)
I thought this would be a short post about the Whistling Ducks. But it's hard for me not to go on and on about orioles. I'm the eternal optimist and keep looking for a Fuertes's Oriole every April. Both years it was here, it arrived on April 16. If it comes, you will hear it from wherever you are. You'll hear a crazy woman shrieking to the universe, "It's ba-ack!"