Magnificent Frigatebird plumages (Tropical Storm Lee Part 2)

2011 September 11
by David J. Ringer

Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) are highly aerial seabirds, able to stay aloft for several days at a time on spectacular 7- to 8-foot wingspans. Tropical storms and hurricanes often push them far inland, and indeed, slow-moving Tropical Storm Lee pushed frigatebirds all across southern Louisiana and Mississippi in early September.

Saturday morning, September 3, more than 40 frigatebirds appeared on a lake on Louisiana State University’s campus. James Maley reported them first, and birders converged. The birds were very accessible, offering an excellent opportunity to observe and photograph plumage features (in between rain bands, that is).


This immature bird shows a white head and underparts with an incomplete breast band, indicating it is young, probably in its first year of life.

The Birds of North America species account pretty well sums up what is and isn’t known about Magnificent Frigatebird plumages, which are complex and develop over several years. Of course, also present in the back of our minds is the wildly remote possibility of detecting one of the other frigatebird species, but I didn’t see or photograph any birds that looked suspicious.


This subadult shows clean white underparts, a feature thought to be associated with birds in about their second year. Also interesting on this bird is the asymmetrical mottling on the side of the breast and axillaries.


Adult (or near-adult) females, like this bird, show black heads and pink feet. I’m not sure what’s up with the smudgy brownish streaking on the sides of this bird’s breast.


Another female. Note pale tips to axillary feathers on underwing.


Mostly dark, but with some pale mottling still on underparts, this bird is an older subadult male.


And here, with a shriveled but still bright red gular sac and all-black plumage, is an adult male.


It was pretty mind-bending to see frigatebirds juxtaposed with crepe myrtles and houses.


Wide shot showing part of the impressive congregation.



Birds of Tropical Storm Lee, Part 1

2011 September 3
by David J. Ringer

An exhilarating day on the central Gulf Coast as Tropical Storm Lee’s winds and rain pushed pelagic birds to the coast and far inland. A few highlights from today. More to come.


About 40 Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) invaded a lake on the campus of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.


An adult male frigatebird (note deflated red gular sac). This photo is not cropped — the birds were circling so close we felt like we could almost touch them.


How this young Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) ended up in the middle of US-90 and what happened next will be covered in a later post.


I found two Red-necked Phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) huddled on the beach in Gulfport, Mississippi.


Three highly pelagic Sooty Terns (Onychoprion fuscatus) seeking refuge on the beach in Gulfport, within sight of busy highway 90. The bird in the back center is a juvenile.

Storkfest in the swamp

2011 August 13

Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin is one of North America’s last great river swamps, critical habitat for staggering numbers of wading birds, neotropical migrants, and many other species. This time of year, though, it’s the waders that steal the show, massing in drying pools and sloughs that trap fish and other prey.

In particular, thousands of Wood Storks have wandered north from Mexico to take advantage of abundant food resources in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley; last weekend, birders at just two locations in the Atchafalaya Basin counted 4,750 storks. Lured by visions of such spectacles, I joined Jane Patterson and Melanie Driscoll at the South Farm unit of Sherburne Wildlife Management Area early this morning.


And we found storks!


And more storks.


Most of these white dots are storks too. We estimated 850 Wood Storks in all, and 1,000 Great Egrets, with smaller numbers of other waders including ibises, spoonbills, and other herons and egrets.


This young Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) couldn’t quite figure out whether to worry about us or not.


Shorebirds were good too. About 200 Stilt Sandpipers fed in the shallow water (but only one came close enough for a picture), and we enjoyed good looks at these beautiful sandpipers, still showing traces of their striking breeding plumage. They were joined by about 175 Black-necked Stilts, which are so raucous as to make Killdeer seem positively demure!


Good practice on peeps too — at least the ones close enough to see. Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla) were easy to pick out from the more abundant Least Sandpipers (C. minutilla) by their strikingly paler look, and bulkier chests and heads.


Several Neotropic Cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) flew by, and this immature circled to give good looks. The species is becoming increasingly common in the Atchafalaya Basin, I’m told.


A few White Ibises (Eudocimus albus) feeding on catfish fry and other prey.



And the obligatory late-summer shot of the beautiful/fascinating/horrifying golden silk orbweavers (Nephila clavipes), which stitch together every tree in the forest with their enormous yellow webs. In this image, the tiny male is poised above the palm-sized female.



How do cormorants take off from the water?

2011 March 21
by David J. Ringer

VICKSBURG, MISS. — Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) often visit the little lake behind my place in Vicksburg, and they’re lots of fun to watch. It’s often said that cormorants “run” to take off from the water, but that’s not quite accurate.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus, takes off from the water\'s surface

During takeoff, cormorants do not “run” by putting one foot in front of the other. They actually move both legs together and hop across the water. They hit the water with both feet, launch themselves forward, pump their wings downward and pull — splash, whoosh, push, pull — and eventually get fully airborne. (See it in slow motion.) Pelicans use a similar technique.

male Surf Scoter, Melanitta perspicillata, takes off from the water\'s surface

Some other waterbirds, including diving ducks, grebes, and loons, actually do run at takeoff, putting one foot in front of the other like this male Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata), which I photographed a couple of weeks ago on a pelagic trip out of San Diego.

A couple more backyard cormorant shots just for fun:

immature Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

Cormorants ride low in the water because their feathers are less water resistant than those of many other water birds. Many people believe that this is because cormorants lack a uropygial (preen) gland and therefore cannot coat their feathers with oil, but in fact, it is primarily the structural characteristics of feathers that allow them to shed water. Cormorant feathers are structurally less resistant to water, which lets them dive more easily after their fishy prey.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus, swallowing a fish

Cooper’s Hawk on the attack

2011 March 20
by David J. Ringer

VICKSBURG, MISS. — A distant hawk caught my eye. By the time I got to the door with binoculars, it was in a steep dive, coming nearly straight at me — its dark cap registered “Cooper’s Hawk” in an instant — swooping at a Common Grackle in a tree near my deck. But the grackle escaped, and the unsuccessful predator rested for a moment in the clump of trees.

Cooper's Hawk, Accipiter cooperii

The bird took off, circling a few times to gain altitude. Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) are specialized to prey on other birds, their long tails steering them with incredible precision through branches and brush after their quarry.

Cooper's Hawk attacked by Barn Swallows

The neighborhood Barn Swallows were not happy with the intruder and mobbed it till it disappeared.