Writer's Life

Another Day, Another Avian Adventure

The alert came in at 6:30 AM and my collaborator texted me the particulars. I had dressed but still needed a  strong cup of coffee to be of any use to her. Less than fifteen minutes later, she began the journey to my location. I had just enough time to change into my hunting clothes and prepare my vehicle. 

A vigilant spotter had arrived at first light to see if our target had moved during the night. We knew it would not hang around for very long. A stranger to this region, the creature’s habitat reached far into Alaska and to the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean during its breeding season. 

Our team arrived on site at 8 AM. A trio of brothers got there before us after a disappointing failure to locate the target at a site two hours south of us. Armed with spotting scopes, binoculars and cameras they lined up along the road adjacent to Retention Pond 2.

We were not disappointed. The Red-Necked Phalarope waded among the groups of Yellowlegs, various Sandpipers and a few Mallards. The graceful creature appeared to be doing the breaststroke through a layer of white fuzz that had settled on the water. The creature’s thin tapered beak and curly tail feathers belied its tough nature. Rarely spotted inland in the eastern states, it breeds in Alaska and northern Canada. Although the Western variant spends the winters in the oceans off the coast of the Americas, not much is known about where our Eastern friend headed each winter. We only knew we were a brief stop on his migration route.

The brothers took their pictures, packed up their equipment and left. We hung around. And we’re so glad we did. Retention Ponds #2 and #3 hold rainwater that collects from the surrounding concrete jungle of distribution centers. During the fall they serve as the temporary home of shorebirds during migration season before heading to winter habitats. Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted, Solitary and SemiPalmated Sandpipers, Killdeer, Green and Great Blue Herons, and the occasional Great Egret visit regularly. The guys had no idea what they missed by not sticking around for a while.

Two ospreys hunted for breakfast over each retention pond and a nearby lake. They hovered and banked over the waters for several minutes. They then dived down, wings back, skimming the surface. One caught something we couldn’t identify in its talons. Moving from one location to another, we followed them to see if they would actually find a meal. A lone sandpiper on the lake looked a bit nervous as the pair circled. But the ospreys evidently considered it too scrawny to merit the energy expenditure. The pair finally gave up and headed elsewhere.

Heading back to our vehicle, we stopped once again at RP #2 to admire the Phalarope. To our surprise, we spotted a Merlin hunting a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs sitting in a deep spot in the pond. The Merlin would hover twenty or so feet above the pair, go into a dive, and just before reaching the bird, the Yellowlegs would duck under the surface. This act was repeated at least a dozen times. The hungry Merlin finally flew off to the branch of a nearby dead tree to recover before taking off for easier hunting grounds. 

Our checklist for the day consisted of nineteen species and one hundred forty individuals. Another good day of birding in Eastern Pennsylvania. 

PS: The Phalarope disappeared the next day.

PPS: Photos courtesy of Nancy Tully.

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