Archives: February 2012

Guess Who's the Looney One!

You mustn’t believe everything you read; I mustn’t believe everything I hear! While an abundance of coots winter at LOW, there was one sighting of a loon at Cornwallis Beach during the Dec. 18, 2011, Christmas Bird Count. Several unknowing residents have mistakenly told me that the black and white waterfowl wintering here were loons, and I dove right in, ready to write about them. Thankfully, LOW resident avian expert, Bev Smith, set me straight: our common black and white visitors are actually bufflehead ducks. 
Around Thanksgiving every year, our waters at Lake of the Woods become home to flocks of coots and bufflehead ducks–those birds you see on the lake one minute, and then…poof, they’re gone! While most of our waterfowl prefer full-timer status, these birds doing the disappearing act are usually only here until around April 15th…hmmm, are they rushing off to file their taxes, or are they tax evaders??
The American coots have greyish-black plumage with white tips on the secondary flight feathers (which appears as a white patch on the tail), red eyes, white bills, and reddish-brown frontal shields on the foreheads. Similar in size to a small duck, coots have long, lobed toes. These toes help propel the coots while swimming, to get through mats of plant material on the surface of the water, and to disperse body heat in high temperatures.
Weighing up to three pounds, coots feed on the surface of the water or dive up to 25 feet either to feed or make a quick getaway. They eat mostly plant material but will also feed on small fish, tadpoles, snails, worms, insects, and eggs of other birds. Communing in flocks of a few birds to hundreds, the coots can live up to 20 years. They are migratory birds, most likely coming to winter with us from the north-central US or Canada. Coots can be seen as full-timers on the eastern North Carolina coast. Their most common predators are the osprey and the bald eagle.
The bufflehead ducks are black and white, with glossy black heads, a large white patch behind the eyes, and pink, webbed feet. Female bufflehead aren’t as striking, displaying more muted colors of grey and a smaller elongated white patch behind the eyes.
Weighing approximately a pound, bufflehead ducks also dive up to 14 feet for their food, using their wings to “fly” through the water. While mainly enjoying  insects, they also feast on plant material and fish eggs.
The flock size of the bufflehead is small, containing less than 50 birds. With a lifespan of approximately 13 years, the buffleheads are most likely visiting from Alaska or Canada. Their most common predators are several species of owls, bald eagles, and other larger, predatory birds.
The fact that our lakes and pond support wintering populations of coots, bufflehead, and occasionally loons, indicates that our habitat is healthy and desirable – – even more reason to improve the water quality and scenic beauty of our lakes!
Until next time…It’s another beautiful day at the lake!

The coot is to the left; the loon is to the right below, and the bufflehead duck is centered below.

Who's the Squirrely One?

I’ve always considered myself to be reasonably intelligent…until I was outwitted by the squirrels.                    
Feeling a little down due to the impending dreary, cold winter months, I lifted my spirits by purchasing and planting $200 worth of flower bulbs. In my mind, I had skipped right past the visions of sugarplums dancing in my head and replaced them with daffodils, tulips, crocus, and allium welcoming my gaze from my window in a few long months!
In mid-November, I was a slave to the hard clay. Preparing the ground to accept my precious bulbs, I struggled. It took at least 3 tools to penetrate the red concrete, and that was just to dig the holes large enough for the actual bulbs. Adding at least 2 inches to each hole to account for the additives necessary to mix with our sorry-excuse-for-soil, I was exhausted just giving the bulbs a fighting chance! Virginia is so rich in culture, history, resources, etc. But why is our great state so lacking in decent soil?
After an eternity (2 days, in reality), my bulbs were planted. I mulched over the bulbs with precision, which looked as smooth as the lake on a still day at dawn (so that the squirrels couldn’t tell where I had planted). I was so proud of myself! Smiling with anticipation as I peered outside, I saw beautiful flowers smiling back at me as my mind fast-forwarded to spring. I felt a sense of accomplishment. I felt that winter would be tolerable.
I recently noticed that my yard is home to nice-looking squirrels. Not the skinny ones with the scrawny tails that inhabited it when I first moved to the lake. My squirrels could easily be mistaken for medium-sized cats: big round bellies with long, thick, fluffy tails!
Yes, I’ve unknowingly been providing my squirrels dessert, and more dessert…$200 worth of dessert! I pleaded, “You have more than enough acorns and hickory nuts! Leave my bulbs alone, please!” I begged repeatedly as I personally witnessed a few particularly robust squirrels feasting on my bulbs. Upon full investigation, that mulch that I so carefully laid over my bulbs now resembles the deeply cratered moon rather than our smooth lake. Digging around, I couldn’t find a solitary bulb. I believe they have all been enjoyed by the acrobatic creatures I’d love to hate–but just can’t.
I am perplexed. Unlike the squirrels, I am smart enough to look both ways before I cross a street. But apparently I am not smart enough to hide my bulbs. So next fall, when I’m so desperate to attempt this process all over again, I am determined to outwit the enemy. I am smart enough to ask for help! If you are smarter than the squirrels, please comment below to share your triumphant secrets.
“It’s another beautiful day at the lake!”

How Bella Got Her Groove Back!

Bella is wearing the green necklace, and Beauregard is behind her.

As you may know, Bella, the permanently injured swan, was relocated to Chicago via the US Postal Service, right from our local Locust Grove office in mid-December! I am happy to report that Bella is doing fabulously well! At this point, she has gained 8 pounds, enough strength in her wings and “good leg” that she is able to hop onto the shore from the pond! I actually never thought that was a possibility, as when Bob Knox, Bella’s new swan keeper, retrieved her from his local post office, even that good leg was not working! I was so worried that having been sitting on it for a week and unable to move it, it too, would be a useless. With council from the Regal Swan Foundation, Bob pumped Bella up with vitamins and medication. It did the trick!
Bell now has a new beau, appropriately named…Beauregard! Beauregard began courting her when Bella was segregated behind a fence, as she was too weak to swim back to the feeder if the wind blew her too strongly in the opposite direction. A fence can’t stop true love: Bella and Beauregard began doing “the love dance” with the fence between them. As she gained strength, Bob removed the fence, and Bella and Beauregard became a bonded pair!
What does the future hold? Cygnets, I hope! Now that Bella is able to stand on one leg, she won’t crush any eggs or cygnets. Had she been unable to stand, she would only have been able to drag herself on the ground, using the “elbows” of her wings. This would have made the survival of any egg or cygnet questionable, at best. When spring arrives, Bob will place Bella and Beauregard together in their own pen to ensure safety and privacy during their mating season.
I wish Bella and Beauregard a beautiful life together! I am so thankful that I was involved in such a heart-warming experience.