Featured Feathers

by Rex Burress

By the end of March, most of the winter bird migrants had slowly slipped away from the Feather River to those mysterious realms where they hide in the summer. In a magical-like emergence when autumnal golden leaves fall in Feather River gold country, the feathered gold arrives - goldeneye ducks, Golden-crowned Sparrows, and Golden-crowned Kinglets - to add their splendor to the landscape, and in the springtime, again they softly disappear until another annual cycling of species begins.

There are always exceptions, however, and as I watched Bedrock Lagoon at Oroville one morning, I noticed that two small female Bufflehead ducks were still around sharing the pond with two pairs of Wood Ducks, a pair of mergansers, a Snowy Egret, and a little Green Heron.

I am beginning to wonder about those Bufflehead. I suspect they are the two late arrivals I saw last fall when the mother appeared with them in December, long after the other Bufflehead had returned. I thought that they were part of a late hatch that couldnít escape the Canadian weather until the young could fly, and I had admired the gallantry of the parent. Now, three months later, they appear to be alone as if deciding whether to stay or make that long perilous journey north at such a tender young age. Had the mother severed ties with them? Had she migrated north with the rest of the flock? It wasnít clear why those two laggards were lingering on the river.

The Bedrock Wood Ducks have been hanging around in early spring, and I suspect the hens are laying eggs in some of the maple cavities of the park. Those old trees are riddled with holes that are mostly occupied by the opportunistic starlings, but I had seen one pair of Wood Ducks in the trees fussing over the rights to a den.

The Wood Duck box that had been placed on a Bedrock maple was vandalized, as have some other box enticements scattered along the Diversion Pool section of the river and the Wildlife Area, where the program is maintained by John Grow and Leroy Hurd. The boxes are built at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area under the supervision of naturalist Lori Dieter of the State Fish and Game Interpretive Division and distributed at the refuge and along the river. Those boxes help to encourage the beautiful Wood Ducks to remain in the community rather than migrate north, and hopefully people will respect that effort. We need bird beauty.

The riverside thickets seem empty after the warblers and kinglets have left. All winter they scurried through the branches in a never-ending quest after insect food, and you can imagine them continuing that industrious effort somewhere in summer nesting places in other woodlands.

We have the resident birds to watch, though. The swallows have also returned to swoop and soar over the river - Tree Swallows in the snags and Cliff Swallows under the bridges. The resident jays and towhees and Bushtits and quail prefer to occupy the local landscape and operate their nesting affairs in nearby habitats. Some of the Canada Geese and Mallard ducks also remain along the river and build their nests there, as do a few mergansers every year. In spite of the need for water, bird watchers hope a late season flood doesnít cause the river to rise and destroy some of those best laid schemes.

As I walked along the river one fine day, at a time when the cottonwoods had just started to grow new leaves, a female Mallard flew from a nest at the edge of a River Bend Park pool where she had kindled two eggs. That reproductive effort of nesting is wrought with untold perils from predators and people - and a certain amount of what would seem like monotonous setting, or sitting if you prefer, staring out at the willow reflections in the pool and communing with the pond turtles sunning on the logs. Some would call that a great nature watching experience ... but for 28 days of constant incubation?

About that nest sitting: A city lady decided she would have some fun with the farmer, and asked him when the chicken was on the nest, was she sitting or setting? The farmer replied that he didnít know about that, but was more interested in if her cackling meant she was laying or lying! Well, there are chicken watchers too! In fact, ornithologist Olin Pettingill said he got his interest in birds by watching the family chicken pens.

On the last day of March, I went to the Feather River Afterbay Outlet to see how the egret rookery was progressing. In mid-afternoon, it was warm and the egrets and Great Blue Herons were lulling around their stick nests high in the cottonwoods - but there werenít very many Great Egrets compared to recent years. And I saw no Black-crowned Night-Herons in the lower branches. You always wonder what is happening, and whether the population has shifted elsewhere, or if some disaster has happened to the species. One of the goals of the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts is to keep tabs on bird populations and ascertain whether any of those independent freedom flyers are suffering declines.

The warm day was also encouraging the pipevine swallowtail butterflies to be out and doing the vetch blossoms - and hundreds had broken from their chrysalis near some pipevine establishment! Even a rattlesnake had ventured out from its winter dormancy to bask in the shade of a warm rock, but one little buzz and it disappeared back into the cavity. Such is the way of birds, butterflies, and snakes!

© 2003 Rex Burress
March 31, 2003