Harper and the Birds of the Open Hole

So far this week, the open hole in the ice southeast of the camp’s shoreline has grown much larger. It looks to have grown in size from what I’d reckon to be 100 x 100 ft to 300 x 300 ft. Indeed, as the shoreline has begun to open up, more birds have begun to congregate there as well. We’re supposed to be getting rain this morning and it hasn’t bothered the visitors that much. Who is visiting? Whoever it is, they are bothering Harper the dog.

You might remember Harper from the post “Out on the Ice” when over a month ago we journeyed toward to racetrack set up by the Northwood Lake Racing Association. His excitement to be out of the house and stretch his legs was on full diplay that day. Though he has been confinded to the house more recently, it hasn’t dimmed his energy in the slightest. He is on top form this morning as he rushes back and forth on the screened in balcony overlooking the lake. Below, two American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) walk about at the waters edge for any fishy remains that they can pick apart for breakfast. Harper likes following crows and seeing them fly around. Maybe he thinks they will lead him toward something interesting. Indeed, it reminds me how biologist Bernd Heinrich talks about the relationship between ravens and wolves where the former would follow and seek out the latter when they were hungry and hoping the wolves had made a kill.

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As the crows did their work, Harper watched intently and growled deeply. Harper has many “opinions” about life. When he gets excited, he starts growling and snarling and grumbling about whatever has made him excited, angry, scared, confused, or whatever emotion he is feeling in that moment. Most of his opinions come about when he can’t see what he is hearing. A truck rumbling past or a loud, unexpected noise gets him moving, his breath heavy with gruff agitation.

“Who dares come into my domain!?”, he seems to say with tail held high and legs a-pacing.

This morning, we’ve had several avian visitors. We were awoken this morning by a combination of the demented jangling of our phone alarms and the demented honking of a trio of Canada geese (Branta canadensis), presumably three of the members of a flock of thirteen that chatted loudly amongst themselves yesterday evening.

Next, as the coffee brewed in the pot and Becca mixed eggs and almond meal for a protein-rich omelette, I took Harper outside for his morning poo. After getting him into his harness and attaching the clip to the loops on top, he scampered off on his running line to complain about the cat he saw out of the window only a few seconds earlier. It seemed that she had done something awful to offend him like existing or walking nearby. Something like that.

As I stood outside, the mild air brushed against my bare forearms and brought the buzzy songs of an Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) and loud klaxon of a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoenicus) drifting from the cattail marsh near Route 4. Ahead, I saw a group of four ducks I hadn’t seen in a while: ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris). One of several poorly named birds whose descriptors were given in a time when you needed a gun and shot to identify your quarry. The males have a barely noticeble chestnut neck ring that in most lights is a useless fieldmark. It’s a bit like trying to identify a Magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) by the tree that it’s sitting in. When it comes to clueing in on what bird you’re looking at, it’s always better to rely on other methods of identification. Ring-necked ducks are best identified by their peaked crown, the male’s black head and back, white spur jutting into the breast, and in both sexes, a white ring around the dark grey bill. That last field mark is far more useful in determining if you’re looking at this species than what it’s actually named for.

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Indeed two summers ago, the American Ornithologists Society (a merger between the American Ornithologists Union and the Cooper Ornithological Society; it should be noted that the former was a purely scientific body and sadly didn’t fight for better working conditions for ornithologists or their study subjects) had a proposal put forward to rename the ducks as ring-billed ducks. The measure was rejected on the grounds that since the bird DOES have a neck ring (albeit one that is hard to see at a distance), why bother changing the name. The birds, unaware that a group of humans somewhere had upheld a name for them based on consensus, dove in the open hole rimmed with melting lake ice.

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Beyond them, a puffy headed pair of buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) floated nearby, the drake’s white body shining under the grey clouds, while the duck’s muted plumage seemed to be paying homage to the weather itself. A relative of the goldeneyes, the bufflehead is the smallest member of the genus Bucephala. Likely, this pair will be nesting in the northern taiga forests of interior Canada where, like our summering wood ducks (Aix sponsa), they will nest in tree cavities and nest boxes built specially for them.

After Becca departed for work, I helped Harper opine about the crows and took several photos of them. He continued to whine and snarl as they flew off, startled to see that they were being gossiped about by a black-and-white voyeur. I guess they had more important things to do.

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“So do I”, I thought to myself as I headed back to the kitchen table to finish my eggs, drink the rest of the coffee, and busy myself with the accumulation of necessary tasks one gives themselves when buying a new home.

Insurance. House painting. Gardening. The list goes on and on…

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