You can’t beat an early Saturday morning at the Horicon Marsh watching a pair of Sandhill Cranes feed their chick. The parent probes deep in the mud submerging its entire beak searching for insects. It clamps the tasty morsel in its bill, lifts it from the soil, and turns toward its chick.
The chick intently watches and when he sees the insect in his parent’s bill, he eagerly runs to his parent to be fed. The adult drops the bug into the chick’s open beak. The adult waits to be sure the hand off was successful and the chick downs his breakfast. The chick walks back and forth between his parents who readily share their prey.
The family continues meandering together along the edge of a drift of cattails. They quickly walk into the cattails to hide when they sense danger.
A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds were also feasting this morning and found their breakfast among the feathers of the Sandhill Crane. The crane allowed them to pick insects from its back. The crane didn’t let the blackbirds get near its chick.
If you are like me, and you have difficulty identifying female dabbling ducks, there is a handy comparison chart in Waterfowl of Eastern North America by Chris Earley. The female Blue-winged Teal has a gray bill, white around the eye with a dark eye line, and white at the base of the bill.
Shorebirds can also be a challenge to identify. The Spotted Sandpiper makes it easier with its distinctive spots on the breast and flanks during spring and summer breeding season.
This little sandpiper took some digging into the field guides to identify. The Least Sandpiper is the smallest shorebird in the world at 5-6 inches long. It has short yellow legs, an all black, slightly downturned bill, and warm chestnut shading on its back and crown. He was feeding along the shoreline of the marsh.
The striking yellow and black Goldfinch is easy to identify. Be sure to use a telephoto lens, if you are taking pictures of it on this plant. The deceivingly pretty, lacy yellow flowers of Wild Parsnip, adorn a plant that will burn a human’s skin. Brushing against the leaves, in combination with sunlight, causes redness and blisters.
Do you have a favorite field guide to birds? Let us know in the comments section. The little library located at the Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center is stocked with a variety of field guides available to be used while you visit the marsh.
Forster’s Terns perch on last year’s cattails along Highway 49 at the Horicon Marsh. English botanist Thomas Nuttall named this tern after Johann Reinhold Forster, a naturalist who accompanied the English explorer Captain Cook on his epic second voyage (1772-75), according to Birds of North America: Eastern Region. If you could have a bird named after you, what species would you choose? Share your choice in the comments section.
A pair of Blue-winged Teal swim in the water along the auto tour. They are usually skittish and fly away quickly when approached, but this pair was content to swim and eat while being photographed.
The female Blue-winged Teal looks similar to most other female dabbling ducks, but she is distinguished by a patch of blue on the upper wing coverts.
Schools of fish swim with their backs out of the water and their dorsal fins exposed. It may be related to shallow water in that area or it may be related to water temperature. Fish may swim near the surface in spring due to cooler temperatures. In summer, they may swim deeper where it’s cooler.
The Double-crested Cormorant swims with its body submerged and its bill in the air. It has beautiful blue eyes.
The yellow eye of the Northern Shoveler contrasts with its metallic greenish to purplish head feathers. Flocks of Shovelers continue to swim along Highway 49.
This female Red-winged Blackbird looks nothing like its mate. They like to nest among the cattails from March to June.
What type of gull do you think this is? Share your thoughts in the comments area.
Bird activity is picking up at the Horicon Marsh and many species are nesting. Be careful driving on Highway 49. You may need to wait for goslings crossing the road.
I’m not sure what this bird posture means. He could be saying, “I dare you to come closer, so I can eat you.” He may be saying, “I would leave if I were you, because this is MY tree!”
He may just be stressed because he is molting. He was flinging feathers with his bill in every direction.
Red-winged Blackbirds like to flash their colorful wing patch and loudly sing to defend their territory. They cover the wing patch when they enter another Red-winged Blackbird’s territory. This may be the most abundant bird in North America.
The male Mallard is keeping a low profile and enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon. He has his nonbreeding plumage. He is still recognizable with the white bordered blue patch on his wing.
Early blooming Crocuses signal the arrival of spring at the Horicon Marsh! The blossoms close at night or on cloudy days, like today.
Saffron, which is used to color and flavor food, is made from the dried stigmas of Crocus sativus. About 7,000 flowers are needed to produce 3 ounces of saffron, making it one of the most costly spices by weight.
The quintessential bird of spring is the American Robin. The male has a darker head than the female. He has a brick-red breast. American Robins can have three broods in one year. They typically eat earthworms early in the day and fruit later in the day. If they eat honeysuckle berries exclusively, they may become intoxicated. Thankfully, I can’t say I’ve seen that!
The head of the female American Robin blends in with the lighter gray back feathers. Her breast is orange with a bit of white. I talked to someone recently who lives in the city and he had no idea what a robin looks like. I was shocked. We are so blessed to have the Horicon Marsh with its plentiful birds and wildlife.
Ring-necked Ducks swim in the water near the auto tour. The auto tour, off of Highway 49, is still closed to vehicles. I passed another photographer as I was walking along the road. She said, “I love this place.” I do, too.
The photographer recognized the melodious whistle of the Meadowlark. He fans his tail as he sings. Eastern Meadowlarks can sing several variations of their song.
The Red-winged Blackbird fanned his wing showing his colors as he sang.
Pied-billed Grebes always look happy. They can trap water in their feathers, giving them great control over their buoyancy. They can sink deeply or stay just at or below the surface, exposing as much or as little of the body as they wish. They dive submerging their entire body to hide or to eat. He was spotted swimming alongside of Highway 49.
After checking out the auto tour, I headed to the Education and Visitor Center on Highway 28. This was a popular hang out for Killdeer today. This one found a bit of stick in the parking lot, which he ate. I’m guessing it didn’t digest too well.
Someone got their feathers ruffled.
Perhaps, it was because three can be a crowd.
This Milkweed was behind the building. I liked the texture.
I also liked the texture and color of the fence post the Song Sparrow used as his podium for singing. Often, Mondays are not our favorite day of the week. But if we get to spend it at the Horicon Marsh, it may be the best day of the week!
Hanging 20-30 feet above the ground and suspended on a couple of twigs is an intricately woven home to a family of unknown birds. “Without support from below, both attachment and construction rely on elaborate binding, weaving, and knotting to create a secure nest. This produces some of the most extraordinary constructions in the natural world.” Intricate knots and stitches weave together grass material to form the nest. A typical nest might contain 10,000 stitches! Hanging at the edge of a branch protects the nest from predators.
Wild cucumber vines dotted the edges of the auto tour. Wild cucumber is a member of the gourd family.
The Northern Shoveler held its large beak at the surface of the water as it swam. Dabbling ducks have little comb-like projections inside their beak that filter out small food items in the water. These projections are the densest in the Northern Shoveler so it can strain out smaller invertebrates. Dabblers feed at the surface and may stick their head in the water. Divers go deeper with their whole body going under the water.
I sat in my car on the side of the road on the auto tour and the only sound was of the satisfied smacking of lips, or beaks, in this case.
What was the dark, unusual duck swimming with the rest of the Mallards? I pored over my field guides when I returned home. Is it a rare find that flew in from an exotic location? Finally, in The Sibley Guide to Birds, there is a reference to domestic Mallards. The drawing looks exactly like this one except for the beak color. Sibley says, “The common domestic forms [of Mallards] are found on farm ponds and in city parks. Interbreeding produces a bewildering variety of plumages and sizes; some bear little resemblance to the parent species.”
This Gadwall was swimming with a friend in the water along the auto tour.
This female American Wigeon was swimming nearby.
Once again I had to do some research to find out the identity of this beautiful bird. It wasn’t easy to find in my field guides.
This view from the back reveals the stunning markings.
This is a solid clue as to his identity. I think he wanted me to know he is an immature male Red-winged Blackbird.
A multitude of Sandhill Cranes come in for a landing in the water at the Horicon Marsh along Highway 49.
They join the other Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese that are already resting there. It was another fun day at the Horicon Marsh!
Peter Goodfellow, Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer and Build (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 94.
 Chris G. Earley, Waterfowl of Eastern North America (Buffalo: Firefly Books, 2005), 50.
 David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds (New York: Chanticleer Press, 2000), 89.