“Herring Gulls, Pirates or Loafers?”

Adult Herring Gulls are quite common on our coast, and they make themselves comfortable everywhere they choose to be; patrolling shorelines, hanging out in parking lots, the marsh, fish processing plants, docks, rooftops, picnic areas, newly plowed acreage, athletic fields, following whales and dolphins at sea (hoping to snatch small prey driven to the water’s surface), hovering above fishing boats, landfills and even airport runways. However, we hardly ever if never see their babies because they generally nest off shore in areas known to be human and predator free! So, it was quite the surprise when a boater on vacation showed up at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport recently carrying an infant Herring Gull. During the boater’s day on the water, he hauled onto an island’s shore to explore and came across a nest in the sand occupied by the little HGull and unfortunately, two deceased siblings. His boating party decided to stay away from the nest and observe for a while to see if Herring parents were still tending to it. One of the party knew that with seabirds one parent is always at the nest until the chicks are at least a month old. So, after a few hours of waiting, watching and seeing no adults return to the nest, the decision was made to take the chick and find a wildlife rehabilitator to ensure the infant’s best chance at survival. It is believed that due to the intact condition of the two infants that passed, no predators were involved and possibly something had happened to the Herring Gull parents. Our report on the admitted baby Herring Gull is extremely favorable, for he is doing very well. He is comfy in his warm brooder, eating mud minnows on his own and going for swims in his makeshift ocean (the laundry room sink). Herring Gulls, one of the most familiar of gulls, are often referred to as “Seagulls,” when in fact, every gull species carries its own name and identification. As an infant, the chick is a gray-tan and spotted brown, fluff ball with a white tipped black beak and tan legs. Young Herrings take four years to reach full adult plumage and go through several plumage stages that vary in appearance. That is why Herring Gulls are misidentified so often. They tend to look like different gulls rather than one in the same due to their lengthy physical maturity process. First-winter birds are gray-brown with a dark tail, a brown rump with dark bars, dark outer primaries and pale inner primaries, dark eyes, and a dark bill, which usually develops a paler base through the winter. The head is often lighter in color than the body. Second-winter birds typically have pale eyes, lighter bill with black tip, pale head and begin to show gray feathers on the back. Third-winter birds are closer to adults but still have some black on the bill and brown on the body and wings and have a black band on the tail, until they finally become the statuesque, white with gray and black wings and heavily built large gull they are meant to be. They are over two feet in length and weigh between 2 to 3.6 pounds, depending on whether they are male or female. Males run heavier. Herring Gulls are larger than Ringed-billed and Laughing Gulls, but not as big as the Great Black-backed Gull. The Herring Gull’s wingspan is 47 to 61 inches. Their physically mature head and chest are white, back is gray with black wing tips adorned with white dots called mirrors. Their legs are pink, sturdy and sport webbed feet, making them equally adept at swimming, walking on land and flying. Their yellowish bills have a red spot on the lower mandible, and that red spot plays an important role when feeding young. The chick will tap on the spot with its bill to let the parent know it’s hungry. This is an innate “fixed action pattern,” so, baby Herring Gulls will peck at any red dot! The eyes of a mature Herring Gull are bright to medium yellow, with a yellow or orange ring around each eye, and those eyes can scope out the tiniest morsel of food from quite a distance. A Herring Gull can be quite loud with a variety of cries and calls that are very high pitched. They are communicators who talk to each other during courtship, to emit warnings, while assigning territory and who also seem to be making noise just for the sake of making noise, but what do WE know since we don’t speak the language?!? Adult Herring Gulls will eat just about anything (and that might also be what they’re squawking about). They are scavenging, opportunistic feeders and effective, lethal hunters.  Because their habitat is always close to water sources, marine invertebrates such as mussels, crabs, urchins, clams, squid, crayfish, as well as fish and discarded fish offal are definitely on the menu, but let’s not leave out insects, berries, worms, other birds’ eggs or chicks, cottontails, carrion and human litter or garbage. They are as smart as a Crow, using tools to hunt such as spreading bread crumbs on the water to lure fish and dropping shellfish on rocks to break them open. They are also very aggressive and will pirate food from another bird’s take or catch! To wash it all down, they prefer fresh water, but will drink seawater if they must. The special glands above their eyes excrete excess salt from seawater that would dangerously dehydrate any other animals, including humans. Considerable time between feedings is spent bathing, preening and “loafing.” Loafing is a term animal behaviorists use to describe a bird that isn’t doing much of anything, and most seabirds spend many long hours loafing. Pairing, that remains monogamous, occurs during April and May, and both male and female are involved in nest construction. They nest in 10 to 15” wide depressions, with smaller depressions within the nest to hold each egg in place, on secluded shores, or they may choose to wedge nests into rocky crevices on isolated islands. The nest is lined with vegetation, feathers, litter and usually hidden from predators and protected from high winds behind a large rock, log or bush. One to three brown speckled buff or greenish eggs are laid and incubated for approximately 32 days. Herring Gulls lay heavy, large eggs and have the highest hatching success of all gulls. Youngsters are born eyes open, fluffy with brown spots and able to move about the nesting area within a few hours. They fledge at 6-7 weeks but continue to be fed by their parents until they are six months old. An interesting factoid regarding young Herring Gulls is that they are known to pant like a dog to cool off, especially if their parents have nested in direct sun, because their mouth lining is their best means of shedding heat. The longest living Herring Gull claims the record of 32 years of age. We, at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, have stepped into the parent role for our little Herring Gull and will help him grow, get stronger and become capable. When he is tall, mottled gray-brown, hunting and flying he will join his place as one of many in a flock of North Carolina Herring Gulls to enjoy many “bird-days,” and hopefully, break the current longevity record!

Best Always and hope you are having a Spectacular Summer!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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“Wintering Scoters”

a_blog_malescoterflightThere are so many species of duck that belong to the Anatidae family of birds; Dabbling Ducks, Stiff-Tailed Ducks, Sea Ducks, Whistling Ducks, Diving Ducks, that it’s hard to know them all, especially the identity of ducks we don’t see in our area very often. Some ducks live and breed far removed from the U.S. as far as the north of England or Scotland and only pass this way during winter migration. The coast of North Carolina has been a good choice for wintering Scoters for many years. They gather in tightly packed, large flocks that take off together when they choose to move either in a straight line or in a V formation. A group of Scoters is called a ‘Mooter’ or a ‘Scooter.’ Avid bird watchers have also discovered that freshwater rivers and lakes are not off limits to wintering Scoters. Recently, a wildlife enthusiast in Emerald Isle noticed a rather stocky brown duck who seemed to be having trouble getting lift off to fly. After it appeared flight wasn’t going to happen, he managed to scoop up the duck and transport her to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport for a check-up. The little, diving sea duck turned out to be a Common Scoter, which are also called Black Scoters, depending upon gender. The scientific name of the Common Scoter is ‘Nigra,’ which means black. Our juvenile Scoter patient had pale cheeks, a milk chocolate body with a whitish belly and a dark brownish-black, wide bill which we assessed as female. An adult male has glossy black plumage with a shiny black bill adorned with a colorful yellow or orange bulbous knob at the base. Both have dark brown eyes. Their legs are brown to black and their webbed feet, are also black. Generally speaking, this is a dark, cold water duck (but not so cold it doesn’t head south for the winter!). Her examination revealed no injuries, but she was underweight. Since there was a covered swimming pool in the area where she was found, our theory is she landed on the cover thinking it was a body of water, and did not have the water source required to maneuver her usual run across the water for take-off. a_blog_femalescoter3She basically grounded herself. A sea-duck’s legs, such as a Scoter’s, are situated a little farther back than those of a Mallard, Muscovy or Pekin, so they don’t walk upright on land very well. It’s not known how long she’d been sitting there with no food or water, but we do know she hadn’t eaten in some time because she was very, very hungry. A Scoter is a coastal duck that usually breeds in the sub-artic and has not been studied extensively in North America. Only a few nests in our country have ever been found. The common Scoter is a highly sociable species and is often seen in large groups, especially during the winter. For this reason, we knew rehabilitation timing would be an issue. She needs to pack on weight quickly so we can return her to her own kind before she succumbs to severe depression or the stress of captivity. A Scoter is a bulky little duck who weighs on average 2 to 2 ½ pounds with the male typically heavier in weight, wingspan is 28 inches and their height, bill to tail, is 18 to 20 inches. They have a long, pointy tail they hold straight up while sitting on water. This duck species dives for food, so it was a little tricky getting her to eat fish, shrimp, worms and insects in a hospital setting, but her rumbling tummy won out. It won’t be long now! In the wild, she will add crustaceans, mussels, fish eggs and duck weed to her diet. Scoters swallow mullosks whole and crush the shells in its gizzard. An interesting factoid regarding this diving duck is that they literally spread their wings under water and fly through the water to catch their prey! The Common Scoter is a fairly quiet bird, so we don’t hear much from her, but when we do catch a rare vocalization, it’s a harsh, raspy quack and just one. During courtship the male Scoter gets a little noisier with some high, shrill whistles and is known to be the most vocal of all waterfowl year’round. In their native territories, (Europe and Asia) male and female Scoters build a nest during April or May which is nothing more than a hefty scrape on the ground near water, lined with a grass/down mix and hidden by vegetation. a_blog_scoterf7The female will lay 6 to 8 off-white to pinkish buff eggs which hatch in about 30 days. The ducklings are born eyes-open, dark brown and able to swim and feed themselves soon after hatching, although they are not able to fly until around 45 days old. The youngsters then head out on their own, and the parents return to their flock to molt, which will render them unable to fly during the time they are losing and growing in new feathers. The Common Scoter is found all over the world, depending upon the time of year, but in their native countries, numbers of Scoters have fallen by 47% over the past two decades and although the reason is not pinpointed, the huge decline in population has been attributed to a number of factors such as oil spills, offshore wind farms, disturbance by boat traffic, hunting, climate change, pollution, development, natural predation, commercial exploitation and possibly, lower breeding success. England has placed the Common Scoter on their “Red List” which means they recognize urgent conservation action is needed for this stocky, diminutive, community oriented duck. We hope our “plumping” Common Scoter continues to thrive and is able to return to her flock. We aren’t sure what country she’s from, but we think we’ve heard a wee bit of an English accent in her quack!!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

“Aerial Beagles”

BLOG_BlackSkimmer31_When the young, underweight shorebird who could not fly was recently admitted to our shelter at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport, the staff became puzzled during the Black Skimmer’s examination when no injury was found. He was obviously thin and lethargic, but we couldn’t find anything else wrong. We can do a lot of remarkable things for wild animals in distress, but we can’t read minds and he wasn’t talking, in English anyway. We hydrated him, introduced a diet of shrimp and silversides, and he started coming around. The juvenile skimmer is putting on weight, becoming more active and continuing to improve. It’s only a guess, but we’re thinking he may not have paid enough attention to his parents’ classes on how to forage and eat on his own. Kids! There are three types of Skimmers, which are a small family of specialized and social shorebirds, found widely in North & South America, Africa and India. Although the global skimmers are closely related, the Black Skimmer is the largest and the only skimmer that resides in North America. Skimmers often roost with gulls and terns along our North Carolina coast. They are called Skimmers due to the way they forage and feed with their uniquely shaped bill. The lower mandible extends well beyond the tip of the upper mandible and that design sets it apart from other shorebirds whose bill is even from base to tip.  A Black Skimmer flies low over water, skimming the surface with its mouth open and submerging the lower, longer bill. When it comes in contact with a potential food item, it will reflexively snap its bill closed, capturing the meal, which would most likely be a silverside, killifish, menhaden, bluefish, sand lance, shrimp or needlefish. BLOG_BlackSkimmerFlyingPairThe food caught will be swallowed during flight or after landing. Although Black Skimmers are a water bird with webbed feet, it is unusual for them to be seen on the water swimming. They are either in the air or on the ground. If you see them on the ground, they often display the unusual habit of lying prone on the sand. This posture, with their bellies flat on the ground and their heads and necks extended in front of them, makes them look like exhausted “hound dogs.” So if you think a skimmer has “kicked the bucket,” take a closer look. It’s probably only resting or some folks refer to that behavior as “loafing.” Although active during the day at low tide, Black Skimmers will do most of their feeding at night. Adult Black Skimmers are easy to identify, even when they are found mingling in groups of gulls and terns. They have predominantly black markings; black back and hooded head and snow white forehead and under belly. Their webbed feet are bright reddish orange, and you can’t miss their most noticeable feature, the also bright reddish orange 2.5 inch uneven bill that is compressed laterally and resembles a knife blade. They have quite the under bite, but it serves them well! Skimmer’s bodies are oddly proportioned, measuring eighteen inches in length with long, narrow wings and extremely short legs. Their wingspan is 3.5 feet, but they weigh in at only a half pound. Skimmers have a light graceful flight, with steady beats of their long wings, and they are so stream lined, bird watchers have described them as “sports cars of the air.” BLOG_BlackSkimmer21Juvenile skimmers by contrast are mottled brown and black on top and off-white underneath. The juvenile also sports an even bill until adulthood development is evident. Skimmers, social birds who are dependent upon sandy coasts and barrier islands, nest in colonies upon beaches, salt marsh islands, dredge spoil islands, lagoons, inlets, sheltered bays, estuaries, sand bars and occasionally on a gravel roof. They prefer the shelter of tucked away water sources rather than open surf. Their nests are built on the ground and often consist of simple scrapes or depressions in the sand. Initial egg laying for skimmers usually occurs between mid-May and early June, but some late arrivals or re-nesting skimmers have been known to make the scene. Eggs are usually laid in every other day intervals and a typical nest contains 3-4 white, buff or blue-green eggs with brown markings. These eggs are often hard for people to see and very camouflaged on the bare sand, usually among shell fragments and scattered grass clumps. Incubation of the eggs requires between 21-26 days, and both parents share incubation and rearing responsibilities. Skimmers are smart birds; they almost always nest near aggressive gull and tern colonies so those equally loud birds can help ward off predators and other disrupters.

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They rely on camouflage or group mobbing to protect their nests. To protect their babies, the parent skimmer will “mob,” or rise up into the air, and attack intruders by swooping low and uttering a sharp, barking call to scare off predators, which includes humans. That’s where the nickname “Aerial Beagle” came from. When they get distressed, they sound like a dog barking overhead. The chicks hatch within about three weeks and start eating regurgitated fish dropped on the sand by their parents. It takes about four weeks until the chicks are ready to fly and another couple of weeks for them to learn to become proficient fliers. Black skimmers are a migratory species, therefore, we see an increased population when Northern skimmers show up in our North Carolina coastal region to winter, unless they head further south, which should be occurring during October. Black Skimmers are classified as threatened and a species of special concern due to habitat loss which has reduced suitable nesting spots. Their nests are also extremely vulnerable to disturbances by humans, domestic dogs, raccoons and predatory birds. So, during breeding season next Spring, please watch your step and keep dogs on leashes while enjoying a walk through the Black Skimmer’s habitat. BLOG_BlackSkimmerPortrait_Hopefully our rehabilitated, young skimmer will be strong enough soon to rejoin his colony in time to possibly make an aerial trek even farther south for the Winter, and we look forward to him visiting his birthplace of North Carolina next year!

Happy Upcoming Holidays, Everyone!!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

Author’s Website http://www.bergman-althouse.com/

 

Another Great White!!

Blog&FB_2-15Sep_GWEgretWFishWhen someone brings up the topic “Great White,” we automatically go there, especially during this beach going season where some aggressive Great Whites have presented themselves in displays of ostentatious and hazardous behaviors! However, there is another Great White that is more pervasive in our coastal area and far less likely to cause any peril or harm. The elegant Great White Egret is an impressive and gorgeous sight to see along our Eastern North Carolina Coast. There are smaller white egrets, such as the Common Egret, but this one is the “greatest” because it is the largest. The Great White Egret is a tall (3.5 feet), brilliantly white, long-legged wading bird with a lengthy, slim neck, an extensive, dagger-like bill and a wingspan of 52 to 67 inches. They fly slowly but powerfully, with only two wing beats per second and can cruise around 25 miles an hour. Gangly and awkward to maneuver, they are definitely a handful to examine at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. We recently received a call on a Great White who could not fly and was unable to jump a fence when approached by humans. The caller, with the help of her friend, managed to contain the wader in a sheet thrown over him to allow for safe transport. During examination at the shelter, no injury or disease was found. Our theory is while hunting for food, he must have ingested chemicals or other toxins in recent run-off caused by massive rains and became ill and too weak to fly. We are treating him for possible poisoning and with his abundant finger-mullet feedings, as well as large silver sides, he is getting stronger every day. Great White Egrets stand erect and motionless for long periods of time searching or waiting for prey to approach during the hunt in marshes, ponds and tidal flats. They capture your attention like dazzling statues in the distance with their beautiful white plumage that drapes over their back and rump during breeding season. Blog&FB_2015Sep_GWEgret_IMG_1522Also during breeding season, a patch of skin on its face turns a brilliant green. They have skinny black legs with very long toes and a thick yellow-orange bill used to capture fish with one quick and deadly jab. In addition to fish, they eat frogs, reptiles, insects such as dragonflies and grasshoppers and small aquatic animals. When they fly, their slim neck is tucked into a tight S-curve, which is quite different from other marsh birds such as storks, cranes, ibises and spoonbills that extend their necks in flight. Males and females are identical in appearance, although the male is a little larger. They are not normally vocal birds, but when disturbed they will present a low, hoarse croaking sound. They become more vocal during breeding season with higher-pitched croaking and occasional squawks. Great Egrets are found in freshwater and saltwater habitats and can be solitary or colonial. They often roost with other wading birds such as herons and ibises and nest in colonies, usually on islands that are isolated from predators, especially raccoons. Great Whites breed at 2 to 3 years of age, and displays of courtship by males include calling, circular display flights and stretching their neck up with their long, scissor bill pointed skyward. Great White Egrets are monogamous and both parents incubate their pale green-blue, three to four eggs for 23-27 days while sheltered in a platform nest 3 feet wide and 1 foot deep made of sticks and twigs found high in trees along the water, which is a location the male has selected. The eggs will be staggered hatches, meaning all the chicks are at different stages of development during rearing. Both parents feed the young, also white at birth, by regurgitation and youngsters may stumble out of the nest at 3 weeks and be ready to fly at 6-7 weeks. The Great White Egret adapts well to human habitation and is frequently seen near wetlands in urban and suburban areas along the coast. Blog&FB_2015Sep_GWEgret_IMG_1715Unfortunately, Great White Egrets became nearly extinct by 95% in the nineteenth century due to fashion-plume hunters, but the Great Egret is now protected and has bounced back as a conservation success story. As a matter of fact, the plight of the GW Egret sparked restoration conversation many years ago which resulted in the first laws enacted to protect birds. In 1953, the Great White Egret was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was formed partly to prevent the killing of birds, such as the Great Egret, for their feathers. It’s so much more enjoyable and humane to see these snowy white shorebirds adorned with their magnificent plumage than to see those grand and glorious feathers attached to a lady’s hat! Of course, most people won’t see Great White Egrets in their backyard, but to ensure their survivability we can encourage the preservation of suitable wetlands, monitor pollution and pesticide levels, as well as, limit the spread of invasive aquatic plants. Blog&FB_2015Sep_GWEgret_MG_5877Wildlife rehabilitators and conservationists are happy to say the Great White Egret’s outlook is much brighter, and their numbers have increased substantially over the last few decades. They still have to dodge and outwit predators such as raccoons, which we already gave the mean face to earlier in this article but there are also crows and vultures to watch out for and humans who destroy habitat also pose a huge threat to their livelihood. The oldest Great Egret is known to have reached 22 years and 10 months and was banded in Ohio. Our Great White, at the shelter, is cooperating by remaining calm and tolerant and by maintaining a good appetite during his rehabilitation. He should be returning to the wetlands soon, and we’re sure he’ll have quite the story to tell when he meets up again with family and friends!

best always,
Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of “Save Them All

NO GEAR LEFT BEHIND!!!

Blog&FB_2015Aug_IMG_0469_edited-1People love to fish and so do wildlife! The big difference between humans and wildlife is wild animals do not need nets, fishing line, lures, hooks or plastic bags when fishing. Therefore, they leave nothing behind that will harm or kill anyone or anything. Left behind fishing gear kills! Wildlife Rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport know this all too well and cringe every time a seabird, wading bird, grazing bird, mammal or turtle is admitted due to the ingestion or entanglement of fishing litter. It’s so painful for the animal and in many cases renders them unable to eat which leads to starvation. Sometimes the devastation is less obvious and can not been seen without x-rays because the animal has swallowed a hook or lure. This type of injury is so frustrating and heartbreaking to wildlife care givers because it is human-caused and therefore, preventable. Nets, lines, hooks, crab pots, shrimp traps or any other fishing equipment abandoned by a boater or someone fishing on shore is considered derelict gear, which labels a fisherman or woman neglectful and irresponsible. This type of dangerous litter is usually made of plastic and doesn’t decompose in water for possibly hundreds of years. Recently, a mature Red Eared Slider was admitted to our shelter who had tried to swallow not one but two fishing hooks. We managed to carefully remove the three pronged hook with bait still attached from his mouth without too much trouble or damage to tissue, but the long, single pronged hook was so embedded in the roof of his mouth and out the side of his cheek, it required a committee discussion on how best to go about getting that out with minimal damage or killing the turtle. Blog&FB_2015Aug_IMG_6413He may not have been noticed or made his way to us if he had become entangled in the line attached to the hooks. Turtles are air-breathing reptiles. When they are caught underwater on a line or in a net, they will drown because they are unable to reach the surface for air. When an animal is entangled in fishing line that has no give, the line wraps tighter and tighter around a leg, wing or neck constricting the blood flow and functionality of the organs, blood vessels and muscles in that area. A fish hook that an animal desperately tries to remove causes lacerations and tears leading to blood loss, serious infections and limited function in the area affected. Some animals, such as pelicans, live with the discomfort of an imbedded fish hook in their body for long periods of time. We know this because hooks have been found in the backs, underbelly or legs of pelicans during examinations for other conditions such as wing fractures or frost bite. Some seabirds have even been found struggling to free themselves from each other because they have become entangled together by a fishing line or multi-hooked lure that was carelessly discarded by a fisherman. During the birds’ struggle they create even more injury to their legs and wings as well as possible nerve damage. Birds and other wildlife that become entangled will experience strangulation, starvation, amputation and in many cases, death. Entanglement is a slow and vicious killer! Because monofilament fishing line is transparent, it poses serious risk to all life, including human swimmers and divers who encounter it.

Photo by John Althouse

Photo by John Althouse

The negative impact of fishing gear waste is huge. Research tells us that the overall populations of seabirds have declined 69.6 percent, which is a loss of about 230 million birds in 60 years. “Seabirds are particularly good indicators of the health of marine ecosystems and when we see this magnitude of seabird decline, we also see something wrong with marine ecosystems.” This information gives us an idea of the devastating and overwhelming impact humans are having on wildlife and our environment. So for those of us who care, what can we do to improve the quality of life for wildlife and our aquatic environment? Get the word out, first and foremost! Do not accept the very little thought given to snapping a line when a fisherman’s lure is stuck on something. In your travels along beaches and recreational waterways, do the birds and other animals a huge favor by looking around trees and shrubs and notice how much fishing litter is strewn or snagged in vegetation, then carefully remove it and dispose of it properly. If you are the fisherman, always take all line and fishing gear with you when you leave. Blog&FB_2015Aug__Fishing gearRemovedX_edited-1The best way for anglers to reduce hookings and entanglements is to avoid casting near large seabird concentrations. If you are in a boat, move to another area. Most piers are large enough for birds to feed in one area, and anglers to fish in another, or take a break – flocks do not usually remain in one area for long. Using barbless hooks or artificial lures whenever possible can also help. Weight fishing lines to ensure the bait sinks rapidly, before birds can dive for it. Don’t leave fishing lines unattended. Do not feed birds or leave bait exposed because it attracts birds. Take leftover bait home so that birds and other animals don’t get accustomed to free meals. Fish remains are a problem because most seabirds swallow their prey whole. Swallowing parts of fish with exposed bones can cut a pelican’s pouch. Think about starting a program to collect fishing line by constructing and placing collecting bins in the vicinity of your local fishing spots. Please fish responsibly and encourage others to do the same. These are all steps in the right direction for the preservation of our environment and wildlife, as well as public safety. If you encounter an animal that shows signs of entanglement or has been injured in other ways by fishing gear, please call your local wildlife care facility, and they will provide instructions on how to transport the wildlife victim to their center. It’s best not to remove the dangerous fishing gear litter yourself, but to trust the application of a wildlife rehabilitator’s knowledge and skills to ensure damage is not compounded during removal. Let’s do this for our wildlife – they need us!!

BEST ALWAYS,
Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of “Save Them All

“The Ravishing Ruddy Duck”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERADucks, ducks and more ducks!! We treat many a duck at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC; Mallards, Muskovies, Wood Ducks, Scoters, Scaups, Buffleheads, Megansers and even a rare Canvasback, but the Ruddy Duck, originally from Canada, is a distinct chubby little thing that doesn’t come through our door very often. However, about a month ago, during our major cold snap, a short, wintering brown, male Ruddy with characteristic white cheek patches arrived. He had been observed sitting in a Swansboro resident’s yard without moving for two days. The concerned wildlife enthusiast managed to approach the stubby winged duck, pick him up without much trouble and place him in a box for transport to our shelter. Upon arrival, the Ruddy’s examination proved emaciation was an issue, but no injury or illness was found. Migratory Ruddy Ducks dive to feed on pondweeds, algae and wild celery, as well as the seeds of sedges, smartweeds and grasses. They also eat aquatic insects and their larvae, shellfish and crustaceans. During breeding season they adjust their diet and feed mainly on invertebrates, primarily larvae and pupae while sieving bottom debris during dives. With icy precipitation and freezing temperatures occurring during his rescue, our theory is the little diving duck found it difficult to find food during the unusual cold spell he, as well as we were experiencing and was basically starving. At that point, our shelter become exactly what he needed; protection from the adverse conditions and a “bed & breakfast” where he would be assured enough good food and the opportunity to gain back the bulk the small compact duck had lost. Because it was winter, our Ruddy was not the colorful male with a gleaming chestnut body, sky-blue bill, black capped head and gray-blue feet most people see during Spring and Summer in the prairie regions breeding areas of North America. East coast bays, ponds and marshes in the south will winter 25 per cent of migrating Ruddy Ducks, but males will appear an inconspicuous dull, buff-brown with a darker brown head cap. Blog_RuddyDuck_OWLS2EFemales are always grayish brown with beige rather than white cheek patches, although in winter they appear darker. The average length of a Ruddy Duck is 15 inches and when healthy, weighs about 1- 2 lbs, with males weighing more than females. Their wings are rounded rather than angular and span 21 – 24 inches. During breeding season, which begins in April, the cartoonishly colorful and bold male ruddy will court females by beating their blue bill against their neck hard enough to create a tapping noise and a swirl of bubbles in the water. They are relatively silent ducks until breeding season, but only the male will vocalize with a “chuck-uck-uck-uck-ur-r-r,” which sounds almost like a belch, while displaying for females. They also make popping sounds with their feet while running across the water during flaunting flights. The only vocalizations known for females are hisses when threatened and a nasally noise made to call her brood. Their domed nest, made out of grasses by the female, will be hidden from predators in dense vegetation adjacent to lakes, marshes and ponds, but some nests are made from old nests of other ducks or constructed on muskrat houses or on floating logs. Ruddies will often take up residence in the vicinity of other diving ducks such as Buffleheads and Goldeneyes and are known to interbreed, which causes concern and frustration for some conservationists, especially in other countries like the United Kingdom and Spain. On the average, female Ruddies will not reproduce until they are 2 years old and will lay 4 to 8 eggs (one a day), that are said to be almost 2 inches each in length, which is very large for their size. Incubation is 25-26 days and after hatching, the lone female will feed and protect the young. The youngsters will fledge in 50-55 days. Ruddy ducks spend the majority of their lives in water and are hardly ever seen on land. Their legs are set back further than most ducks, therefore, an upright stance is difficult, but they are great swimmers and divers, and use their stiff tail, that stands straight up, similar to a cute Carolina Wren, as a rudder to maneuver when they swim and dive. Ruddy Duck, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, CaliforniaWhen taking off from a lake or pond, Ruddy Ducks are very awkward due to their unusual wing design and must use their legs and wings to “run” across the surface of the water (like a runway) and once in flight, the ruddy duck will beat its wings very fast. Some people say it looks like a huge hummingbird. When threatened by predators, of which they have many, such as raccoons, minks, crows, red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, great horned owls, foxes, ringed-billed gulls, night herons and humans, they will sink slowly beneath the water or dive with great speed for protection rather than fly. After nesting season, Ruddies will form tight flocks on open water in great numbers for preservation from injury or harm, although habitat destruction, droughts and drainage in their breeding range and exposure to oil spills have recently decreased Ruddy Duck numbers. Their average lifespan in the wild is 2 years with 13 years the record holder. Ruddy Ducks living in zoo environments typically enjoy the longevity of 8 years. Our Ruddy Duck seemed to find pleasure in his stay at our shelter and became chubby once again. Krill, greens and beaucoup meal worms (which were his favorite meals) vanished in his presence, and he was offered as much as he could put away! Once his weight was back to normal and our southern weather turned warm again, he was released in an area where Ruddy Ducks frequent. 2012 Waterfowl Stamp ArtworkBy now, we’re sure he’s on his way north to meet up with a mature Ruddy Duck gal willing to bear his children, and probably at this very moment, like the colors of a rainbow, our little Ruddy is morphing into his strikingly handsome and vibrant summer self!

Happy Spring Everyone!!!  Wildlife babies are already blooming!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse,  author of “Save Them All

“The Water Witch”

WPBlog_Pied-BilledGrebeFeb2014SubNot often do the volunteers and staff at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport get their hands on a Pied-Billed Grebe, but it happened just a few weeks ago. You see, Grebes are extremely elusive and won’t be found on land unless something has gone wrong. When someone with a compassionate heart found the petite Grebe scooting along the ground, it was thought at the time that the water bird must have a broken leg or two. So, the rescuer scooped him up and transported the short-billed, wide-eyed critter to the shelter. Our examination revealed no injuries to wings or legs and no presence of toxins or illness. Although Grebes rarely fly, when they do, it’s usually at night. So, because the small Grebe is not talking, our educated theory is during flight on a rainy night, an attempted landing on a shiny spot he misidentified as a body of water caused him to belly flop onto wet pavement. Fortunately for him, it was a landing instead of a dive, so although jarring, he survived the mistake but found himself displaced. We decided the best treatment plan would be observation, plenty of good food, water play and Rest & Recuperation so he could recover from the shock and trauma of the predicament he found himself in before we return him to his happy place in the wild. The Pied-Billed Grebe, also known as American dabchick, Devil-diver, Dive-dapper and Water Witch, as well as a few other names, are excellent freshwater swimmers and divers, but they don’t walk very well on land because their feet are far back on their body, similar to the Loon. They can run for a short distance on water, but on land they are not stable and will fall over. PB Grebes are small and stocky with a short neck, compared to other water or marsh birds. They measure between 12 – 15 inches in length and weigh only 9 to 20 ounces. Their wingspan extends from 18 – 24 inches. Their chicken-like bill is short, blunt and light gray. The PB Grebe is mainly brown with a darker brown head and back, which serves as excellent camouflage in the marshes where they live. In the summer the bill sports a black band and their throat area looks much darker, almost black. WPBlog_PiedBillGrebe_Feb2014Sub_edited-1Grebe feathers are dense, soft and waterproof. They have the ability to pull their feathers tight against their body to manage buoyancy as necessary. If danger lurks, they will dive, subtly – no big splash, basically just sink like a gator, up to 20 feet rather than fly to avoid predators. PB Grebes will stay under water for about 30 seconds while moving to a safer location. They often swim low in the water anyway, exposing only their head and neck watching for potential threats. During breeding season, the Pied-Billed Grebe couple, who have courted by singing to each other or together, will use a variety of plant material and twigs to build floating nests on the surface of the water. The nests are built close to shore but far enough away to protect them from a predator attack, which might show up in the form of a dog, cat, raccoon or human. They lay up to two sets of bluish-white eggs each year, numbering 3 to 10 per clutch. Incubation takes about 23 days and both parents oblige, although the female will take over the responsibility toward the end of the incubation period. If the parents have to leave the nest unattended, they will cover all the eggs with nesting material to protect them from predators while they are away. As soon as the youngsters hatch, they are able to swim, although not well and will climb onto a parent’s back for much of their travels until they are skillful enough to dive, hunt and swim like Mom and Pop. Both parents raise the young and will even dive for food with young ones clinging to them. Pied-Billed Grebes prefer to dine on aquatic invertebrates, such as crayfish, snails, leeches and insects but will also feed on small fish, frogs and tadpoles. Their stout, thick bill enables them to crush crustaceans like mussels. They sometimes add plants to their diet, too. An interesting and not well known fact about the “Water Witch” is they have a tendency to eat their own feathers and also feed them to their hatchlings. It’s believed that this odd diet choice assists in the formation of pellets containing indigestible material that can be expelled and to reduce vulnerability to gastric parasites. The greatest threat to the Pied-Billed Grebe is habitat loss. They need wetlands, and wetlands are being lost to draining and filling for residential use. Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) Morro Bay CA 13 Dec 2010Grebes are shy and very sensitive to disturbances. Even the waves from boats can destroy nests and cause frightened PB Grebes to abandon their nests. Grebes have been declared endangered or threatened in many states, although they haven’t made the list in North Carolina yet. Our Pied-Billed Grebe is a cooperative cutie and doing very well. He will be swimming and diving waters near you soon, and he may even be on the periphery of where you are by the time you are reading this article.

Dive on little Water Witch!! Dive on!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All