Birding: Clam, sunny day create a birding bonanza

A rock dropped from some 20 feet above you makes a loud clunk when it hits a hard surface. When it drops right behind you, it’s impressive.

The rock turned out to be a clam that was about to become a young glaucous-winged gull’s lunch. He kept an eye on me when I turned around to see what had made the clunk. Was I going to challenge him for the tasty bivalve? I suspect he would have grabbed it and took off if any move was made. Another young gull was watching the action and this made the clam-catcher all the more wary.

Sunshine at this time of the year is a magnet that always draws us outside. This time, we visited a small park just a few blocks from our home. It is on the water, and most of its acreage is a large dock. You never know who will be hanging around this spot, but there are almost always some interesting birds. This day of blue sky and millpond water was perfect for birdwatching.

Our visit had become a need. We drive by the park almost everyday, and I can’t resist trying to see the birds on the water. This makes passengers nervous and frustrates me. Once at the park, we could see numerous birds resting or feeding on the calm water. Goldeneye ducks were expected, and both the common and the Barrow’s were present. It was the Barrow’s that put on a show, and we hadn’t brought a camera. Almost two dozen male Barrow’s goldeneye were gathered together in a loose flock. Their black-and-white plumage made a breathtaking scene in the sunshine. This bird is one of my favorite waterbirds, and to see so many of them together was a birding bonanza.

Other birds weren’t about to let the goldeneyes get all the attention. A pair of hooded mergansers sailed out from under the dock we were standing on. The male’s white hood was fully extended, and he and his mate gave us several looks but they didn’t appear alarmed at our presence. A male hooded merganser seen in bright sunshine often raises a question in many birders’ minds. “Which is the most handsome, a hooded merganser or a harlequin duck?” I have come to the conclusion that the best-looking bird is the one you happen to be looking at. Seen side by side, I don’t think I could make a choice.

There were no harlequin ducks hanging around, but several American wigeons were feeding at the water’s edge. They had competition from a great blue heron, and this bird got a second look too. I don’t remember seeing one of these herons hunt in such deep water. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was swimming. The long plumes that hang down the bird’s neck to its chest were actually floating in the water. It was submerged up to its sides and how it could catch anything in that deep water is a puzzle. Perhaps it was just bathing where the fresh water was entering the saltwater via a culvert.

Most of the waterbirds we were watching were in the “diving duck” classification. Two exceptions were the mallards and the wigeons. They like to paddle along the shore, tipping up or sweeping their bills through the water for small aquatic morsels. Diving ducks can be frustrating to watch. Just as you get the binoculars focused, that merganser, goldeneye or grebe ducks under the water. They never come up where they went in, and they can hold their breath a long time.

It isn’t necessary to travel very far to enjoy the bonanza of birds on the water at this time of the year. A day with no wind or rain is a bonus right now, and a birding break is just what we need as this season starts roll into high gear.