It wasn’t the best day to be out and about in a Lake Erie marsh, but it was the only day of the month that cars were allowed out onto the dikes of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, so there was no choice. Once a month, this refuge located along the south shore about 15 miles east of Toledo, Ohio, throws open the gates for vehicle access to the seven mile drive through the management units. It wasn’t exactly bitter, but let’s just say it was a crisp windy day that found me out scanning the extensive marsh. I wasn’t alone – there were dozens of birders out there slamming on brakes, throwing open their doors, and hastily setting up their spotting scopes as various spring waterfowl migrants were spotted on the distant horizon. Dozens more “curiosity drivers” poked along the route to eye the scene and drink coffee from their thermoses. One brave fellow, dressed in black with a formidable scarf, pedaled the dirt roads on his bike.
I wasn’t out there to look at Northern Shoveler ducks from three miles away, however. I guess I’d place myself somewhere between the curiosity drivers and the birders. I didn’t ignore the flights of immature bald eagles cavorting over the willow studded landscape, but I didn’t leap from the car to watch them either. I confirmed nearly all my sightings through the zoom feature of my camera lens from within the warm confines of my car. No, admittedly wimplike, I was more bent on comfortably scanning the muskrat lodge dotted waterscape from within my mobile heated blind.
There were two features that not only caused me to put on my brakes, but to open my windows as well: Red-winged Blackbirds and Trumpeter Swans. Please allow me to explain the former and elaborate on the latter.
Admitting to halting any forward progression in order to stare at a Red-wing, especially when in a world class marsh, is tantamount to an admission of birder heresy. I’ve always had a soft spot for these guys and rarely pass up the opportunity to watch the males go through their spring courtship rituals. I’ve seen it a million times and expect to witness it a million more before I eventually travel to the great dike in the sky (heaven is a huge freshwater marsh, by the way). The black and red fellows cavorting along these earthly dikes ignored the passing traffic and allowed themselves to be observed at rather close quarters.
One thing that became clear regarding these early spring singers is that most have not yet achieved their glossy black feathering (see above). Still retaining their winter colors, the males looked a bit grizzled. The feathers of their back and breast feathers were edged in buffy browns and creams. The birds will not molt to achieve their breeding finery, but as spring advances these light edges will eventually wear off to leave only the black portion. In other words, these feathers recede as the season advances.
One male bird caught my attention because, in addition to the grizzling, he sported a conspicuous white patch on this wing (see below & here). This is not a normal part of red-wing décor, but among this group of highly variable birds it is to be expected. Like many of his typically colored counterparts, he was taking advantage of the gentle height of a muskrat lodge to perform his “oak-a-lee-ah” routine. He paused to admire himself in the water’s reflection before flying off to a higher perch on another lodge. Whether this unusual swatch of white will help him roll in the “chicks” remains to be seen. Who knows, among red-wings this could be the equivalent of a huge facial mole with hair sprouting out of it!
Of the Trumpeter Swans, I should not have to offer any excuse for gawking. These majestic birds are the largest members of the waterfowl family in the world and they stand out like gigantic white thumbs against the gray wind-blown water. In this part of the world, we’ve only got three swans to pick from: the unfortunate alien Mute, the glorious migrant Tundra, and the re-introduced Trumpeters. The state of Ohio has released dozens of Trumpeters back to their historic haunts over the past decade (being wiped out of the east by the turn of the last century) so the opportunity to see them is increasing year by year. Some have argued that these birds were never common in the Great Lakes region originally, but none can argue that they look good here (see photo at beginning and detail here).
Large size (reaching up to 28 pounds and 4 feet long with 8 foot wingspans), solid black bill, and straight neck posture are features that separate these swans from all others. These identifying visual traits are un-necessary once the fowls open their beaks to speak their minds. True to their name, they utter blasts that sound like one of those old fashioned car horns – not the “a-oog-ga” kind but the coiled trumpet “honka honka” kind. There is no other bird that sounds quite like that.
I was lucky enough to spot a mated pair, one of several that apparently breed at the Ottawa refuge. These two birds were engaged in some early pair bonding. Take a look at the movie clip (here) and you’ll see them perform a bit of bill dipping. Each pump of the head elicited a honk as if a bellows handle were pulled.
One of the swans sported a neck collar about its mineral-stained neck. These bands are used by researchers to keep tabs on individual birds, but their use has been curtailed in recent years. They are used along with the more traditional aluminum leg bands. One of the distinct advantages of a neck band is that it can be read through a pair of binoculars while leg bands can’t be read until the bird is in hand – either through death or re-capture. Each region has a color and number/lettering code. This bird bore what looked to be the code 8A9 on a yellow plastic background which indicated that it was banded in Ohio. The Ohio based code is a yellow collar with a number-letter-number sequence. This same Trumpeter, or what I believe was the same bird, was recorded at the refuge last April as well.
Had I more confidence in the identity of the final digit, I could have reported the bird through the 1-800-327-BAND hotline (this is a real number and not my usual made up stuff). As it was, I wasn’t 100% sure of the whole code so I took the road of caution and remained a Mute swan. It was already bad enough that I was spending my valuable time at watching red-wings. It would have been especially embarrassing to find out that the real 8A9 was dead. This would be like reporting an Elvis sighting, or more instrument appropriately, a Louis Armstrong sighting. Besides, I’m positive that the bird was reported at least a dozen times by my fellow dike drivers. I’ll bet even the darkly clad biker called it in.