A Wily Coyote Makes Pond Appearance

Over the last two weeks we have observed the resident Canada Goose couple searching the shoreline and neighborhood yards for nest real estate.  Last spring they opted for my neighbor’s yard and the nest almost made it to the 25 day mark before being robbed by a predator.  (We never saw or heard who but supposed it was a couple of foxes or possums working in tandem.)  So, we were not too excited when they began to take a very close look at a spot by our dock.  First of all, who wants to be accosted any time you want to sit on the dock and secondly after last year we felt this would be a venue a predator would return to.

While the Canada couple vacillated on a nesting spot- our yard or the neighbor’s yard, we enjoyed watching other migratory waterfowl come into the pond.  The little Ringnecked ducks varied in numbers, one day 8- the next 20.  A Gadwall couple appeared, then a Pied Bill Grebe couple diving closely by the shoreline before beating a hasty retreat anytime I stepped out on the deck.  The Great Blue Heron also came to fish, however he kept some distance between himself and the geese.  Most recent was the colorful and stylish Wood Duck couple appearing on the pond- flying around the cottonwoods, landing like a songbird on the high limbs possibly scouting out their own nesting area?  But the geese had finally made their decision and it was to be our yard…by the dock.

Things had been going well with the Canadas these first few days and it became apparent that there were 3-4 eggs in the nest.  Momma Goose, for all her lumbering weight on land was gently stepping around the large eggs, carefully rolling them and covering them with downy feathers she had pulled from herself. She tucked the eggs in and settled herself time and again throughout the days, only leaving the treasured array of sticks, mounded earth and feathers to get a drink and maybe nibble on something. We had gotten used to their presence and fortunately they were used to ours so we could sit on the dock and they could keep us in their sight.

Even the nights had been quiet with no neighboring dog barks or warning honks from the geese until 4:00 A.M. this morning.  Geese less than 40 feet from the house in the dark stillness of early morning have a tendency to bring one to immediate alert and wakefulness…  Stumbling down the stairs, I grabbed a flashlight and panned light back and forth across the yard towards the dock.  Both geese were at high alarm,  Momma was standing by the nest-the gander moving up and down the shoreline.  I tried to set off the motion light and took one more look out expecting to see a fox only to realize I was seeing a coyote approaching the goose nest at a trot.  Shining the flashlight in its eyes and then going out on the deck sent the slinking predator on his way.  I called up to Dan that there was a coyote in the yard and his comment was that it probably had its own young to feed.

geese n nest
Canada geese at nest and the lost egg

I did not see the coyote again, but the geese sounded another alarm- I opened the deck door, hollered and then trudged back to bed- not sleepy, flashlight at the ready…  At sunrise I went to assess the yard, geese and nest only to find one cold egg about 15 feet from the nest and Momma back on the nest, the sentinel gander by the shore.  Apparently the lights had initially scared the coyote away and I only chanced to see it as it made its way back in an attempt to pick up its prize.

I believe we now know the identity of last year’s wily predator; one who has a long memory and one we have probably not seen the last of.  Nature is a great teacher and I love observing it- experiencing it here on the pond.  But Nature’s lessons can be poignant and difficult to witness at times.  I will think of the abundance of Canada geese in our area, I will think of hungry kits in a den and I will hope for fuzzy goslings to appear on the pond ready to swim and learn to fly.

What Kind of Turkey is That?!!

Dan and I decided to “get out of Dodge” ie Wichita this weekend and head for the Mark Twain National Forest in South West Missouri.  It proved to be interesting bird-wise, as it usually does.  On our way down we passed a poultry farm housing domestic turkeys (looking out at us from their long thin vented windows) bright black eyes,red heads, waddles and white chests all we could see.  Any other time we have passed this farm we have only seen chickens or empty outbuildings, so it was a bit of a surprise to see these bigger birds.  Little did I know viewing them that morning would help identify another species later.

After a couple of days of relaxation from the city and work, we started the drive back home.  We usually count any raptors we see along the highways- excluding vultures, as they soar in large groups and tend to be less varied than sightings of other raptors- small colorful Kestrels hanging on high lines, rusty hued Red Tails and Merlins perched on utility poles or an occasional  soaring Bald Eagle, among others.  Now don’t get me wrong about vultures, I have great respect and admiration for these avian ecological wizards.  They are the clean-up crews of roadsides, ditches, fields and perform such a valuable service in Nature. They just have a different look and a featherless pate takes a little getting used to for me.  Oh, I understand the usefulness of not having feathers getting soiled when one sticks their head in carrion…I just prefer to not think about it.

Continuing homeward, we once again approached the poultry farm with Dan slowing down a bit for us to gather a better view of these Thanksgiving possibilities…which I also didn’t want to think about… I prefer to eat any meal without envisioning its past, unless it is a bright red cherry tomato or green herb from the garden, which has been viewed from almost inception with the design of consumption. So imagine my surprise about 130 miles down the road from the poultry farm when I spied a huge white domestic turkey perched in the top limbs of a large cottonwood tree.

Truly that was my first thought…domestic turkey or a big white rooster and how would they have gotten way up there and be out in the middle of nowhere on a 2 lane Kansas roadway? So Dan turned down a dusty gravel road for us to get a better view.  Red head, longish white body and on our approach it lifted off soaring across the prairie in a flight only a raptor could accomplish.  Its tail fanned out and large wing spread…who is this?

I began to search on my phone for pictures of albino birds of prey.  But this bird had slight color variation on its secondaries and the red face.  That is when I found the word leucistic (leucism) as a term for animals that lack melanin pigment leading to lack of correct color form yet not devoid of all pigment which would be albinism (albino).  We were amazed to see this incredible bird- and wondered at its safety and courage to be out on the prairie all by itself.  Leucism creates challenges for those birds it affects.  No camouflage, possible lack of feather strength due to missing melanin, less warmth from cold due to reflection off white feathers and limited courtship opportunities.

Though there might be challenges, it is apparent that this migratory raptor has survived to adulthood, large, looking well and soaring white against the pale blue spring skies.  So if you happen down a 2 lane Kansas highway soon and see a domestic turkey eating carrion on the roadside…take a second look as it may be this anomaly of ecological service…. a Leucistic Turkey Vulture….and it is our hope that it lives long and finds a mate out on this lonely sweep of Kansas prairie! leucistic vulture II




Week of the Swans

A couple of weekends ago, while out on an errand, I received a text from Dan saying he was viewing swans on the pond.  Impatiently finishing my errand, I hurried home hoping to at least catch a glimpse of the massive waterfowl, as I had never seen them on our pond before. Some of the surrounding ponds have “swan couples” placed there by homeowners wanting to add some charm and grace to the ponds and small lakes…some placed with hopes they will ward off Canada geese.  But these (and yes I am sure they were a couple, one larger, sitting taller in the water and moving faster and more aggressively through the water), had appeared out of nowhere.  No one in the neighborhood was quite sure when they appeared.  But once here, their presence was definitely noticed.

cropped swans
Mute Swans grace Green Heron Pond

The stark contrast of the swan’s white feathers against the dark green-y brown of winter pond water and their immense size drew your eyes to where they were immediately.  I could even find them in the dark on the pond as I made my way down the stairs getting an early start on the day, their silhouettes an iridescent gray glowing in the pre-dawn light. They were graceful, magnificent.

As I watched them floating effortlessly across the water, I was reminded of my college days and Finnish composer Sibelius’ piece for orchestra with solo English horn, The Swan of Tuonela.  I never played it but my oboe/double reed professor performed it on his faculty recital- leaving everyone longing to hear it again, this poignant, hauntingly beautiful piece about a swan swimming in a lake in the realm of the afterlife.  And this swan couple- on our little lake were mysterious, elegant- gliding through the water hour after hour. Their dark eyes veiled by a small black mask, their orange bills moving only slightly pronouncing the faintest “mraack”sound if other waterfowl or Dan and I got too close.

Even though the ducks and our two Canadas kept a respectful distance, they all moved in tandem with these large white birds, composing a waterfowl symphony of movement and color…the rustic browns and blacks of the Canadas,  the brilliant greens of the Mallard and Shoveler males and the staccato accents of the black and white diving Ringnecks.  It was a marvelous scene to behold on our humble pond, our little lake…we witnessed these grand events for a week and then as mysteriously and soundlessly as they had appeared, they were gone.