Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
There really is no justice in this world. We humans need to shop until we drop in order to look elegant, yet some birds are ready-made to be stunning. In this column we will take a look at some of our favorite well-dressed birds. But before we begin, here are a few reminders: Most birds look their best in springtime. The males wear the flashiest feathers. They’re doing the courting, after all, and the hens seem to enjoy the attention.
Since there are plenty of waterfowl around our home in California right now, we’ll start with the Canada goose. This bird isn’t as colorful as some we’ll discuss, but it’s certain to be one you’re familiar with. At this time of year they’re wintering in the southern and coastal states, but before long they’ll be migrating across the entire country, and into most of Canada.
Why do we like Canadas, or “Cans,” as they are sometimes called? This goose has quiet class. It’s large, and it comes equipped with a jet-black head atop a long, black neck. But the head isn’t entirely dark. Cans are graced with a white chin strap that curves down over one cheek, under the neck, and then up to the opposite cheek. Small things matter, even when the bird is four feet long. As many times as we’ve seen Canada geese, we always pause to enjoy their beauty.
Now it’s time to think small, or at least smaller. Just like many other birds, ducks wear gender-specific attire. The males (drakes) get the fancy feathers. The mallard, the most common duck species, is a good illustration of this. Most people are familiar with this duck, whether they have binoculars or not. Mallard drakes show a metallic green head and neck banded by a narrow, pure white ring. Below that display they have a shiny cinnamon-colored breast.
Wood ducks are even more striking, but unfortunately they aren’t seen nearly as often. They sport red eyes, a red bill, and a mostly black head and back patterned with artistically arranged white edgings. In front, the chestnut-colored breast is highlighted with tiny golden dots. If we weren’t accustomed to seeing this bird in the wild, we’d be tempted to claim that somebody had been out there with a paintbrush. This bird was certainly designed by an artist.
Ruddy ducks aren’t nearly as flashy. Yes, they have ruddy, cinnamon-colored bodies, but their claim to fame is that, during breeding season at least, the males possess elegant, bright blue bills.
All right; that’s enough about ducks. Now it’s time to go closer to the ocean.
You’ve probably seen the large and graceful great blue heron many times. Despite their name, these four-foot-long birds are gray, rather than blue. But they’re still gorgeous, even when wading in the shallows with their bills underwater. When a hungry heron locates a small creature below the surface, it’ll grab it and gulp it down.
In our travels we’ve seen and identified a number of heron species. To give you an idea of the variety and colors, there are also green-backed, tricolored, and little blue herons. But none are white, except for a few species during breeding season. Odds are that if you see an all-white bird shaped like a heron, it’s a very near relative: an egret. (At least most egrets are white.) To prove the point, the middle-sized version is appropriately named the snowy egret.
We’ve focused on birds you’re most likely to see on or near the ground, so now let’s take to the air and check out a tern. Birds of the tern family are the most streamlined you’ll see, whether flying or standing around. They’re easy to describe “” nearly all species of terns are all or mostly white; very thin; and have a long, pointed bill at one end and a long forked tail at the other.
Terns are coastal birds, so watch for them flying along and then suddenly plunging head-first into the water to grab a tasty morsel, then surface and swallow. That’s a lot of work for a little bite, but they’re certainly a pleasure to watch.
The American avocet, another bird we enjoy, is a wader, and this one has really long legs. It is a striking black-and-white bird, with gray legs and bill, and a rust-colored head and neck during breeding season. It’s most often seen wading in shallow ponds. You’ll know one if you see it. Few birds come equipped with a long, slender bill that curves down, and then out, and then gradually back up. With a bill that long, you can safely assume that it also has a long neck. But those legs are even longer.
Another black-and-white shorebird that appears to be wearing stilts is appropriately named the black-necked stilt. Those yellow legs are so long and so spindly that it’s hard to believe they can support the bird. They can, and gracefully at that.
Finally, when you’re traveling along the Gulf Coast, keep an eye out for a roseate spoonbill. These are big, pink birds. At least the bodies are pink; the necks are white. But the bill makes identification easy, even if you’re color-blind. Spoonbill bills are gray in color, very long, and will remind you of a spatula more than a spoon, broad and flat toward the end. Once again, you’ll know one if you see it.
As birding aficionados say, good birding.