Birds of a feather flock together…and not

Gulls know how to do the flock thing for sure. Pity the next human visitors to that raft. Hopefully they came with a mop. It does make you wonder though. It’s not like someone spread a breakfast of bagel bits on the raft and hollered “come and get it.”

You hear that distinctive wail of the loon and you never figure they’d gang up or have a party. But they do. And here on Long Lake.

Then there are the true loners, like this Great Blue Heron walking slowly through the shallows looking for tasty morsels.

Apparently if the vantage point isn’t quite right, they’ll try for a better view, though.

The Eastern Kingbird is often seen hunting solo for insects. But they work in pairs to feed their young.

Kingbirds don’t look particularly menacing. But if you come near their nest before the chicks fledge, look out. How do I know? They nested again this year in the cupholder on our dock bench.

They sort of fake you out because they tolerate your presence while they sit on the eggs. But once the eggs hatch, look out. Once the eggs hatch and you’re just minding your own business quietly trying to unmoor or moor your pontoon boat’s dock lines these birds are fierce. And they don’t just fly around above and squawk menacingly. They dive bomb right at your head and aren’t satisfied until they’ve actually hit it. I thought for awhile if you didn’t talk and if you didn’t look in their direction, they’d leave me alone. They proved me wrong on both strategies. We surrendered our dock bench to them for the duration. But we weren’t willing to surrender our boat rides and so we paid the price. No injuries though. Not to us and not to the Kingbirds.

We see Flickers alone or in pairs, often pecking around in the dirt looking for bugs and other protein.

This guy was just resting a bit, near as we could tell.

There are some birds that all Long Lakers can identify at a glance, like this Gull giving a Bald Eagle a hard time.

The Gull knew a threat, to young we assume, and went after the Eagle. There were some interesting aerobatics. At one point the Gull bounced off the Eagle, doing no apparent damage to either.

Cormorants seem to be more frequent visitors to Long Lake. We may even have a few permanent resident Cormorants this year.

Long Lakers aren’t freaking out though. Sure, Cormorants fish almost as effectively as Jeff does. But we don’t get much by way of walleye stocking these days. And besides a few Cormorants just do their bit to increase our lake’s biodiversity.

Speaking of biodiversity, please leave a comment if you recognize who this pair is. We spotted them in Ghost Bay on August 18th.

I thought they were adolescent mallards. We did have a brood of mallard chicks this year. But these upper bills have an overlapping point at the end, more like a merganser and unlike a mallard. If they are mergansers, maybe in their eclipse plumage, they must have forgotten to check the calendar. Plus they must have lost their GPS because we should be seeing Common Mergansers only briefly in the early spring or late fall. Please leave a comment if you recognize this pair.

We’re getting into the migration season again on the lake. It’s such a fun season and we’re fortunate that so many species decide to land and spend time on our lake. Actually, though, I must betray my biologically incorrect bias and confess that if the Canada Geese would just keep flying I’d be fine with that.

Long Lake Great Blue Herons

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This is one of Long Lake’s Great Blue Herons, probably bedding down for the night, since Great Blues do tend to sleep in trees. Down south, where our herons migrate to, this makes good sense because that way they won’t be some alligator’s evening meal.

This heron’s bed is the dead pine on the west shore of the lower lake, in the first bay south of the narrows.

If you watch the shore closely, in our lake’s most secluded spots, you will sometimes see the herons stealthily hunting. They walk, slowly, watching for fish that swim by, or frogs or small snakes. They hunt by sight, including in dim light thanks to having an extra dollop of rods in the back of their eyes. They don’t hunt by smell at all. In fact they have a very weak sense of smell–which is probably a good thing, considering the somewhat smelly stuff they eat. Fish are heron’s main food. They stab them with their sharp beaks. Then they have to make sure to swallow them head first, so that the scales and fins don’t get stuck in that long esophagus.

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This Great Blue looked a bit worse for wear when we spotted it a few weeks ago. We suspect that he (or she) was in mid-molt, but we’re not sure. Speaking of not sure, he and she herons look alike and are sized alike. Herons can sort it all out. But for human observers, that’s basically impossible.

We also wondered if this individual was a juvenile. If so, it was already full size. And, speaking of size, these guys are big. They have a wingspan of 5.5 to 6.5 feet.

Here’s a look at a heron wading in the shallows in front of our cottage, looking for breakfast.

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Great Blues are shy birds, easily spooked. This next one flew off and gave us a good look at the deeply bent wings in flight and those trailing legs.

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What’s up on Long Lake

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We aren’t going to have any loon chicks this year on the lake. But we have loons-in-residence and from time to time we’re the party lake this summer. Loons occasionally gather in social groups. We hear them flying in, sounding their loony-tunes flight calls. We see them doing their skittering chasing about.

The underside of a loon is always a surprise. Even when you know their beautiful plumage is topside only, that white underbelly still seems sort of unfinished. Like the black magic marker ran out of ink.

See how the loon has its feet crossed in flight, as if at the ankle?  I’m thinking that must help it to deal efficiently with wind resistance. If loons did all that foot waggling and scratching in the air that they do in the water, they’d probably fall like a rock.

Here’s a beauty of a definitely different sort.

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The Turkey Vulture. We see them circling in kettles that can number a few dozen individuals. But they don’t always travel in packs. This guy was a loner. Its fanned-out wing tips are a dead giveaway. Also, if you see a bird swooping down to something dead and smelly that’s pretty much a giveaway too. Oh yes, there’s that red head, all nicely defeathered so the bird can pick at carcasses and not have to do much grooming. There’s no mistaking that red head.

This fellow, cruising high over Long Lake, is a Great Blue Heron.

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Great Blues fly with deep, strong beats of their very wide wings. But from ground level, it’s the long trailing legs that tell you best what’s up . When Great Blues fly, they pretty much fold their necks into sort of an “s” shape. So, look for long legs, long beak, but you won’t really see a long neck. And if you’re suddenly being reminded that all birds are descendants of dinosaurs, you’re probably looking at a Great Blue Heron. These guys may set you to wondering if the dinosaurs are still extinct.

Here’s one everyone knows, the Bald Eagle.

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If Bald Eagles are flying high, they are more likely to be gliding than riding a thermal up in a spiral as a vulture does. On Long Lake the eagles often fly low over the tree lines. Their wing tips fan out, but not so exaggeratedly as a vulture’s. And unless the bird is very high or very backlit, the white head and yellow beak is the giveaway.

Ah…definitely winter

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This is the dash of our Subaru Forester registering the temperature on Saturday at 7:52 in the morning. Yep. Minus 22. Officially it was only minus 14, but we’re not Alpena, where the National Weather Service reports out the weather. Our mild winter has suddenly turned frigid.

It seemed like a good time to think back to last summer, now that the lake is frozen and the ice fisherman are taking walleye and perch from the lake. Well, too cold for that right now.

Great Blue Herons are very patient fishermen. They will stand still for long periods waiting for fish or frogs or small snakes to mistake their twiggy feet for twigs and venture close. This one was startled in Ghost Bay and moved to a new fishing spot while Steve snapped photos.

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Great Blue Herons are the largest herons in North America. When you see a big bird flying over Long Lake (or anywhere) with its neck curled into a tight “s” shape, trailing long legs behind, that will be a Great Blue. That neck position makes for a more aerodynamic flight. And the neck flexibility helps them pounce on prey from a distance.

These are very big birds. Cornell’s Ornithology Lab site says they have wingspans from 65 to 80 inches. They mostly forage alone and have a high number of rod-type photo-receptors in their eyes that allows them to hunt on the edge of Long Lake even in the dark.

On the wings

The first dustings of snow have fallen. And yes it’s “sticking,” though there’s no accumulation yet to contend with. Long Lake is teeming with mergansers, black ducks and buffleheads. But I’ve still not boasted properly of all the winged things we’ve seen this year.

We had more Bald Eagle sightings than any other year. Since the eagles don’t migrate we’re hoping to continue the sightings through the winter. But it will be more difficult now that we can’t float around on the lake. Snow shoes will be an option soon though.

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What a creature. What a great blue-sky day that was.

We watched a Great Blue Heron patiently stalking prey on the shores of Ghost Bay for at least half an hour one early morning. We tired of watching before the heron tired of stalking. When we are patient ourselves, and quiet like the heron, we can drift around in our kayaks and not disturb the hunting. A few times the heron looked like it was doing the heron equivalent of salivating, but we didn’t see it catch anything.

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We watched this osprey in one of the dead trees in the south lobe of the lake, very near to the narrows, for a good bit. Steve was minus his best camera for wild life photography, so maybe the tree is the star more than the osprey. But what a pair!

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And when the sea gulls are not trying to snitch french fries from the Alpena McDonald’s/Home Depot parking lot, they can be quite the dignified bird.

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This one was perched, late in the fall, on what remained of the “this-will-kill-your-prop” now-submerged rock pile near Belly Button Island.  We imagine it hadn’t gotten to stand on those rocks all summer because it wasn’t anywhere near the top of the pecking order. There are still some gulls on the lake. Maybe this one is still sitting on the rock, making it look like he can walk on water.

There is some disturbing news, though. We were quite sure this year’s adolescent loon had flown off nearly a month ago. Steve saw it take flight and head high and upward. We are hoping that the little goofball didn’t get mixed up. But whether its “our” adolescent or another who just happened to make its way somehow to Long Lake, as of November 15th, with the snows closing in, there is still an adolescent loon on the lake.

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Honestly, this one–who we haven’t seen up close for a few weeks–looks to be smaller and somewhat lighter colored than the young one we watched all summer. We worry it’s this year’s chick, which certainly seems likely, and that it’s ailing. This photo was taken in early November. But we saw him yesterday, November 15th. He’d caught a fish.

Last year the adolescent didn’t leave until mid-November, so it’s still possible this one will take flight and head south before the lake freezes. “Fly, fly, fly!”