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It was a sunlit morning in early December. Out of the corner of my eye, I happened to notice a flurry of activity in the little cove between Smith Point and our property. I grabbed my camera, opened the window and began to shoot. It was all over in little more than a minute, rushed along no doubt by my sudden presence at the window.

It was only later that I pieced together what happened. A Mallard pair were feeding in the shallow water of the cove, as they so often do. Mallards are dabbling ducks, and tip over to reach organic matter on the bottom. This shallow, protected spot suits them to a tee.

A small flotilla of Hooded Mergansers, four males and one female, must have suddenly rounded the point, and caught the Mallards in the cove. When the latter tried to exit, several of the little “mergs” reacted to the bigger ducks’ movement, and mobbed them defensively. The mergs by no means presented a unified front, however; one can be seen still diving for food while his fellows pushed on.

That is not an improbable scenario. Mallards are normally placid creatures, whereas the Hooded Mergansers are little bundles of energy, ever darting here and there, or diving for food. In fact, they move so fast that it’s hard to follow them in the photo sequence, even though the intervals are literally split-second. A momentary confrontation was almost inevitable.

In the photos, you’ll see some merganser males with their crests lowered, others with it raised. The frosted, brown crest belongs to the lone female. The date was December 3, 2011.

Update: This post was originally published under the title, Duck Dust-up. Sorry for any confusion.

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The warm winter weather suggests a changing climate, along with “winter robins,” and Ruddy Ducks remaining on the pond long after their usual departure.

The foggy dawns may also be a sign. Several times in recent months, I’ve awoken to an impenetrable wall of white outside my window.

On December 5, 2011, the fog was dense at first light. By the time this photo was taken at 7:39 am, it had thinned just enough to let a pale, golden orb shine through.

See related posts: Fog at First Light*, Foggy Dawn II*. Click image to enlarge it; click back arrow to close. Comments are welcome.


A reader and friend, Robin Mirollo, provokes us to think a little more deeply about the Baltimore Oriole nest. She writes:

Your photo brings to mind how both my maternal grandmother and mother liked to leave colorful yarn and ribbon on the bannister in the spring in the hope that birds would choose them. It’s fascinating that birds like to weave bright strands into their nests. Why would they do that and what is the meaning? Is it simply decoration and why would they choose to make their nests more conspicuous rather than more fully camouflaged?

I’ve long wondered whether creatures of the wild have an esthetic sense. Is the blue ribbon on this nest a form of decoration, a purely creative expression, as Robin asks, or is it placed there to show pride of ownership, to stake a territorial claim, or to attract a mate? There must be a good reason, either creative or practical, or both, as it could certainly invite unwelcome attention by predators and humans, alike.

Robin searched the Web and found many other examples of Baltimore Oriole nests adorned with blue strips — strips similar to ours, and said to be remnants of disintegrating plastic tarps. Not all nests had them; in fact, a majority of the Baltimore Oriole nests pictured had none at all. Could it be just another building material, used when available, but with no significance beyond that? In speculating thus, do we run the risk of ignoring our eyes, or underestimating these little birds?

In fact, it’s hard to take such a practical view when you examine our nest carefully. Woven throughout the body of the nest are small lengths of the blue plastic, while longer lengths are wound carefully around the top. The oriole mother has used the material both structurally in the pouch and decoratively at the top, suggesting that she made a distinction. To see more clearly how bits of blue ribbon are woven into the body of the nest, click on the photo, and then click again, to enlarge it further, when the little plus sign or magnifying glass appears.

Our nest is frugally adorned, compared to some more fancifully dressed with blue strips, that Robin found online. To fully appreciate what Robin and I are excited about, you really must see those examples. Here are a few: 1., 2., 3., and 4.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of the color blue; doubtless blue strips are available in great quantity in some areas, especially where construction is under way. Photo #4., above, shows a silver ribbon on the nest, from a child’s balloon, along with the blue tarp strips. Our nest also had a length of silver ribbon on it, at the top, in the back; it was narrow, the kind you tie presents with. If strips of other colors were available in large quantities, it’s altogether possible the orioles would use them too.

Many birds build intricate nests. Some birds routinely add bits of colored yarn and other found materials to their nests. What sets this story apart, and makes it so fascinating, is that some Baltimore Orioles appear to have embraced nest-decorating with a passion, using one found material, the blue plastic strip. What’s more, they’ve done so with a panache that could easily be taken for human. Do creatures of the wild have an esthetic sense? It’s a seductive question.

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Everything grows old, even trees. There’s a great old willow on my neighbor’s property, at the water’s edge, that’s been dropping limbs.

The arborist says that willow wood is brittle by its nature; when the tree gets old and top-heavy, its time to trim it back. Well, it’s been trimmed back several times, now. Let’s hope this is the last, because it’s a shell of its former self. It’s still with us, though, still a presence.

This Baltimore Oriole nest was on one of the branches that the arborist’s team cut off this week. A team member kindly presented it to me. It belonged to an oriole pair that has enlivened our corner for several years. I hope they won’t be put off, and will come back to build anew next year.

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As the seasons progress, the sunrise moves from the northeast to the southeast over our pond, and then back again, due to a wobble in the earth’s axis relative to the sun. In December, the sun rises furthest to the southeast, and remains lowest in the sky.

In December, we also see the most dramatic and colorful sunrises. This day, I woke early. Glancing out the window, I saw a bit of gold at the edge of an overcast sky, shrugged and went back to bed. It was Sunday morning, after all, and still pretty dark.

Lying there, I suddenly realized something may be up, and I ought to take another look. Sure enough, brilliant color was stealthily spreading over the sky, and was also reflected in the water.

Such grand events are often short-lived, as I’ve noted many times. I opened the window and clicked away. Within minutes, the intensely colored clouds had slid off to the north and were gone.

The photo was taken on December 4, 2011 at 6:35 am.

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The day began with dramatic, almost dreamlike cloud formations above the hill beyond the pond. They are ephemeral, I’ve learned. Quickly, I reached for my camera, opened the window and started shooting. As happens so often, the first shot was the best. The variable vapor soon dissipated.

Again, towards evening, another ethereal display filled the sky. Again, I made haste to record it. The date of these wondrous events was November 29, 2011.

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