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Learning to See

Willingness, mindfulness, focus, and detective work

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the question is not what you look at–but how you look and whether you see. (Thoreau 1851)

In my weekly essays I commonly report small natural history observations noted during a walk in the forest or meadows. Readers of these essays sometimes ask me how I manage to notice the little things I frequently write about—a trail of a small beast in the mud, an odd excrescence on a twig, hairs caught on tree bark, a bee sleeping among goldenrod flowers. Well, that is easily answered: I am interested! And that is the starting point.

So if you think you might be interested in learning How to see, or How to see better, or How to see more, while taking a walk on or off trail, keep reading. And, although I am putting this in terms of seeing, the same principles apply to our other senses.

I think the process of really seeing things can be broken into four stages:

Stage 1. Being willing to become engaged in the process of observation of natural history. It is not necessary to be a naturalist at the beginning; as experience grows and observations accumulate, you have more background to build on, and a beginning naturalist is hatched. But it is entirely necessary to be willing.

Stage 2. This could be called mindfulness or ‘being there’. Although we often think about many things while taking a walk—maybe health problems, or what to make for dinner, or books you’ve been reading—take some time to be aware of where you are and what is around you. Even while talking with a friend, use your peripheral vision and let one part of your mind catch something that’s unusual or different. Maybe it is a change in pattern—an unexpected flower color, a dark spot in a field of yellow, a lump on a pine branch. Let it spark your curiosity.

Stage 3. Focus. Look more closely at what caught your peripheral vision and ask questions. Is it a flower that you don’t recognize? What are all those flies or bees doing? Why did those gulls suddenly fly up in a big swirl and move down the beach? What made those leaves roll up into cylinders? What could have made that narrow, wiggly trail in the mud?

Stage 4. Detective work. Try to answer at least some of your questions. This may involve more observations, or looking things up in a book or on-line, or consulting a local expert. Or you can be satisfied just by noticing things and looking more closely.

cow-parsnip-by-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

Here is an example. You are walking on Perseverance Trail in summer. You are vaguely aware of a lot of white, flat-topped inflorescences on tall stems near the trail. You may or may not know the plant is called cow parsnip or Indian rhubarb. Most of the inflorescences might have a small fly or two crawling around—barely worth noticing, maybe—but one of them looks darker and has a dozen or so flies of various sizes, making it look different from the others. As you watch, you notice that the flies are probing into the tiny flowers that comprise the inflorescence, possibly eating nectar and pollinating the flowers as they move around. But one of the ‘flies’ looks a little different from the others; it has longer legs, a thinner abdomen. And as you watch, you see it probing flowers like the other insects but gradually sidling up to a feeding fly and pouncing on it! Wolf in sheep’s clothing! Not a real fly, but a predatory wasp.

That simple observation could lead on—to finding out the identification of the wasp and more of its life history, to reading about other sneaky predators, to figuring out the effect of the wasp on pollination, to looking for similar behavior on other types of flowers, and so on—depending on how much detective work you want to do. In short, you have discovered a STORY, one that could be expanded in several directions.

These activities are not the choice of everyone. But if you are willing, and have a little bump of curiosity, and take the time to pay attention, you will find many small stories—connections among things, contrasts or parallels among other things—and all of this enriches a walk.

It’s fun to do these story-searches by yourself. But it’s even more fun to do them with a friend. I have two dear friends that share this fun with me rather regularly (and whose thoughts contributed substantially to this essay).We complement each other, noticing different things, asking different questions, contemplating different answers. Try it!

The rare moment is not the moment when there is something worth looking at but the moment when we are capable of seeing. Joseph Wood Krutch 1951

Midwinter rambles

and some thoughts on ravens and wolves

Late January brought us some wonderful snow, deep and fluffy. Of course, after a few days, the temperature rose and the rain came, turning the low-elevation snows to heavy, hard-to-shovel stuff and sending down great lumps of snow from the trees. Very disappointing!

However, before the rains, there was time to squeeze in a couple of little excursions. Parks and Rec went up to Gastineau Meadows on a lovely day, all of us on skis or snowshoes. Shore pines in the muskegs were turned into ‘trolls’ by the great loads of snow they bore (but these trolls didn’t have any bridges under which to lurk). Most wildlife tracks had been smothered by new snowfall, although a few hare and porcupine trails were just barely discernible.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable excursions, nonetheless. We greatly appreciated a group of three young and very courteous snowmobilers who cheerily made room for us pedestrians to pass and even cut their engines so we didn’t gag on the fumes. Well done, guys!

Soon after that, I went snowshoeing in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, on a mapping expedition with a friend who has a giraffe-length stride. Much of the time we were off-trail, bushwhacking through thickets and tangles. I wallowed along in the “giraffe’s” wake, lifting piles of loose snow with every step. So I began to understand the perspective of a porcupine, nose down, pushing snow aside as it trundles along on its short legs. My understanding improved when I tumbled nose-deep into a partly obscured tree well. Fortunately, the “giraffe” very kindly hauled me out and even presented me with a refreshing cup of tea. And so we went on our way.

Another friend was skiing on Mendenhall Lake one cold day, accompanied by a dog. A raven approached and hopped slowly just ahead of the dog, as if tempting the dog to chase it. The dog did so, briefly, before being called back. The raven tried again but then, getting no response, flitted back and tweaked the dog’s tail. The raven tried one more gambit, in an attempt to get the dog to play. It found a stick, landed a little way in front of the dog, lay down and rolled over, stick in claws, as if offering the stick to the dog. Alas, this dog doesn’t play ‘stick’, so the raven failed to entice it into a game and eventually departed.

raven-and-dog-by-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

Ravens have been observed to play with wolves, too—tweaking tails and playing tag. In at least one case, the game of tag was played by the raven diving at the wolf’s head and quickly darting up and away when the wolf leaped at it. A daring sort of game, indeed. Bernd Heinrich, who studied ravens intensively, suggests that games of daring are a way to show off to other ravens and build status in raven society.

Were other ravens watching this Mendenhall raven from a distance? Perhaps. Or maybe the bird was really just playing. Anyone who has watched ravens rolling and tobogganing down a snow slope and running back up to do it again, or doing aerial acrobatics, cannot seriously doubt that they know how to play.

Ravens and wolves have a long-standing relationship that may be more complex than previously supposed (of which more, anon, I hope).

July observations

an insectivorous squirrel, a piscivorous bear, jostling salmon, and ferny thoughts

–Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a cottonwood branch twitching strangely. I looked up, expecting to see a bird. Instead, there was a red squirrel, bouncing out along the branch, stopping every so often. When it stopped, pieces of leaf fluttered down to the ground. A squirrel eating cottonwood leaves?? But why by-pass most of them, then? I reached for my binoculars and zoomed in.

I could see that some of the leaf pieces were yellow, not green. Then I could also see that the squirrel was not nibbling on leaf stems or leaf blades but rather it seem to be briefly manipulating each chosen leaf. Aha! Yellow leaf bits falling, squirrel picks only certain leaves…That squirrel was foraging for leaf rollers! This seems to be a good year for leaf roller moths, whose caterpillars use silk to bend leaf blades into protective tubes in which they live and feed. But there was little protection from this hungry squirrel, which cruised branch after branch, foraging all the way on juicy morsels of fat and protein.

Mine was not the only such observation: A naturalist friend observed another enterprising squirrel selecting rolled-up alder leaves. The squirrel noisily chewed open the leaf roll and ate the delicacy within, then moved on to more branches and more leaf rolls.

–It’s bear-watching season on Steep Creek near the visitor center, and one day I saw a yearling about twenty feet up in a cottonwood, in an odd pose with its rear end up and head down. Its hind feet were on one branch and its fore feet were on another, lower branch. Those front feet were deftly manipulating a salmon carcass, adeptly turning it first one way and then they other, occasionally flipping it over. The little bear eventually stripped that carcass down to spine and tail and let these remnants drop. Then it spent several minutes cleaning up its front paws and scampered up another fifteen feet to have a nap.

Young black bears usually separate from their mothers in their second summer. By then, they have learned a good deal about suitable foods and foraging, but they sometimes have a little trouble getting enough to eat. This little guy seemed to be doing just fine. However, it looks to be a rather poor year for berry crops, so it will be interesting to see how yearlings do this fall.

–While I was at Steep Creek one day, I watched the sockeye as the females were tail-flapping to disperse the sediments so they could lay their eggs in clean gravels, and the males were jockeying for position near nest-building females. Breeding males are deeper-backed than females, because they develop a slight hump on the back. The hump is probably a visual signal to other males, making its owner look big and hefty. Male pink salmon commonly develop such large humps that one of their other names is ‘humpy.’ But both sockeye and pinks can use the hump in the same way: when two males are side by side, contending for access to a female, the male with the taller hump leans over the smaller male in a literal put-down.

The first time I saw this behavior was while I was watching pink salmon coming into Sawmill Creek in Berners Bay. The male pinks in that creek seemed to have unusually tall humps, perhaps in part because the accessible part of the stream is quite short and flat, so a streamlined body is not so important. But it could also be partly because competition among males in that stream is, for whatever reason, particularly intense, making a big hump especially advantageous.

It was in Sawmill Creek that I watched a male pink that had such a huge hump that its body was shaped more like a dinner plate than a fish. This male would come closely alongside another male and lean that tall body over the less well-endowed male, forcing the smaller male to lie on its side until it could flap away. Since that time, I’ve seen this behavior several times, in sockeye as well as pinks. It seems to me that this is a form of physical domination, perhaps just short of a direct attack with toothy jaws.

–A friend and I are learning how to identify the local ferns. On a recent walk with that goal, my friend noticed a sizable brown caterpillar on a northern wood fern. The caterpillar was gnawing away at the fern frond, and nearby we saw several other chewed wood ferns. No other ferns on our walk showed signs of insect damage, but a botanist friend recalled seeing severe damage on lady fern on Admiralty Island a few years ago.

Most ecologists seem to agree that, in general, relatively few plant-eating insects specialize on ferns, and ferns get less damage from insects than flowering plants, even though there have been many millions of years for insects to evolve toward eating ferns. So how do ferns avoid heavy damage by insects? One suggestion is that ferns have general chemical defenses that reduce their value as food (just as tannins, for example, make many tree tissues hard to digest) that could be more difficult for insects to overcome than specific toxic defenses such as alkaloids; insects have evolved many specific detoxification mechanisms that allow them to utilize flowering plants that contain toxins.

Late December sightings

ptarmigan in the forest, ducks in the harbor

On one of those dark, short, wet December days, Parks and Rec went up to Spaulding Meadows, a favorite destination. After we got past some icy patches on the trail, it was easy going. Most of us were more comfortable wearing cleats, but some hikers were content with rubber boots.

As we passed through a long stretch of snowy forest, we noticed some interesting tracks wandering up the hill right beside the trail: a bipedal pattern—left, right, left, right—with three toes on each foot. OK, so it was a grouse of some sort, probably ptarmigan. The pattern ended near two hollows in a snow bank. In the bottom of each hollow were groups of dark pellets. Aha! Two ptarmigan had spent the night here, leaving behind the remains of their recent meals. We could see the little piles of snow they’d scratched out of the side of the snow bank as they dug their burrows. And there were the wing marks they left when they burst through the roofs of the burrows in the morning. Most of the hikers had not seen ptarmigan beds before, so this was a mini-treasure.

I’m guessing that the burrowers were willow ptarmigan, which often come down into the forest in winter. Male and female willow ptarmigan stay together more than other ptarmigan do, although I don’t know how much they might associate in winter. Other grouse also roost in the snow sometimes, but the feet of our burrowing birds were small, more the size expected of ptarmigan.

Snow started to fall as we broke out into the lovely, snow-covered upper meadows. On went the snowshoes and we made a quick tour around before heading back down—into the rain again.

A day or two later, a friend and I strolled out (still in the rain) onto the floats in the Auke Bay harbor. Moderate swells were coming in from the channels, so the boats and the floats were heaving up and down a bit—any more and I’d have gotten seasick!

The harbor was an active place that day. There were both Common Murres and Marbled Murrelets, all in black and white winter plumage, floating calmly around and occasionally diving. It is unusual to be able to watch Marbled Murrelets at close range for any length of time; in summer, when they pop up next to a boat, they generally dive again immediately. Pacific Loons, a cormorant, some goldeneye ducks, and Common Mergansers loafed and dove, but we could never see what they were after. However, a later visit, when feeding was very active, detected some transparent invertebrates (possibly euphausids, a.k.a. krill) in the bill of a successful forager. A song sparrow swept in and out, under and around the floats.

The prize for this day went to a squadron of long-tailed ducks. They were diving too, and seemed to be able to stay underwater for quite a long time. I later learned that they can dive (using their wings) to depths over a hundred feet and stay under over a minute, if necessary. Several males in white and black winter plumage, with the famous long tail, were accompanied by over a dozen females and, presumably, juveniles that exhibited variation in plumage patterns (chiefly in the degree of darkness of chest and neck patches).

Long-tailed-Ducks-feeding-by-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

The diving long-tails came up with items that differed in shape and size, but we failed to identify their prey. Long-tailed ducks winter breed in the Arctic tundra, all around the globe, but they commonly winter on marine coasts. In winter, they have a varied diet of amphipods, isopods, bivalves, snails, and fish. They are very well insulated with a thick coat of feathers. Their hearts are large, relative to their body size, presumably related to their diving ability.

Populations of long-tailed ducks in Alaska are reported to be declining, which is also true in some other parts of their huge geographic range. The causes, however, are not clear. Long-tails do not begin to reproduce until they are two years old (i.e. in their third summer) and probably produce only one clutch of eggs a year. Predation on nests can be high, and duckling mortality is typically high. So this species does not have a quick recovery time once the populations decline.

Lawson meadows

wet-snow tracks and tiny treasures

The meadows near Lawson Creek are a favorite destination for a Parks and Rec hike or just for exploring. You can now get there from the snowmobilers’ parking lot on Blueberry Hill, up to the Treadwell Ditch, then south on the Ditch Trail and over the new bridge at Lawson Creek. The upstream loop of the old Ditch Trail is now cut off by the new bridge, but you can go partway up the valley on the old Ditch Trail after crossing the bridge or hop right up into a chain of meadows that stretches up the valley.

Or you can start on Crow Hill, go up the CBJ trail to the Ditch and then, instead of going left on the Ditch Trail to Gastineau Meadows, go right. Rather than using the Ditch Trail here, I prefer to go up the little slope into the first big meadow. From there, you just continue around the slope and head up Lawson Valley through the chain of meadows.

Eventually, you run out of meadows and the forest takes over. Parks and Rec usually turns around at that point, has lunch, and heads back down. On a recent excursion, our lunchtime ‘café’ was sheltered from the rain by some tall, dense conifers, and we looked out our ‘window’ at the last meadow.

The snow was heavy and wet, and the skiers in the group found it fast going, making it back to the cars in record time. The snowshoers took a good bit longer. On this wet day, the muskegs on the CBJ trail were overflowing the trail in some places, creating deep slush but no problems for our passage. (Right now, as I write, it is hard to even think about rain and wet, what with low temperatures and howling winds that lift the snow into swirling clouds hundreds of feet tall. The mountain peaks are invisible.)

There were deer tracks in the lower meadows. The deer were sinking in pretty deeply and probably found it hard to move from one relatively snow-free, forested area to another. In winter, deer find their food under the trees, where the snow pack is less than in the open. There were also several sets of snowshoe hare tracks, partially covered by a little recent snow. Best of all was a set of porcupine tracks, small and close together, showing where a young one, now independent of its mother, had wandered around snacking on shrubs.

Two other wintry walks yielded a couple of tiny treasures that I’ll share:

Before the rains, during an earlier the deep-freeze, I found lots of silken threads dangling from branches. The silks were probably left by juvenile spiders, which use these threads to become airborne on a passing breeze. That’s how they disperse away from their mothers to begin their independent lives. On that day, each silk was covered with layers of tiny crystals of hoarfrost, which sparkled like holiday tinsel—only better!

The second little treasure, at the edge of the Mendenhall wetlands, was short-lived. I heard an unusual bird song nearby and soon spotted a magpie under some alders. The bird was fossicking about, occasionally pecking at the ground, and singing a very soft, sweet, delightful little song, all to itself. It sang for several minutes, and gradually went out of sight and hearing in the alder thicket. The bird seemed happy; I certainly was!

Little sounds in nature

the rewards of listening in silence

If we venture off into the forest, away from town and roads (and aircraft, if possible), we often comment on the Quiet. But Quiet in the woods is not silence—it is the absence of human noise. Then we can hear the little sounds and contemplate the small stories they tell.

Most of us notice–at least sometimes–the conspicuous songs and calls of birds. Many folks rejoice at the first song of a varied thrush that in heard in spring. A friend enjoys the ‘rattling key chain’ vocalization of golden-crowned kinglets. Some of us are cheered every time we hear the song of the American dipper. Those sounds are noticeable by anyone who pays a bit of attention. Birdwatchers pay a lot of attention and do almost as much ‘watching’ by ear as by sight.

Not so very long ago, many of us enjoyed a talk by Hank Lentfer and Richard Nelson, featuring their recordings of some natural sounds. Some of these sounds were easy to identify, while others, being much magnified, were harder. Easy or hard, it was an enjoyable and educational presentation.

Taking a cue from those well-known naturalists, I thought it would be fun to think about some of the small sounds in nature, sounds that become perceptible in the Quiet, sounds that otherwise might easily be overlooked. With the contributions of two observant and thoughtful friends, here is a sampling of small sounds that we have enjoyed as we stroll along, stopping every so often to look and listen.

–wing beats of ravens, wind rasping through their feathers as the birds power their way along, in contrast to the slower, softer wingbeats of a heron

–the puff of air as surfacing sea lions exhale, quite different from the puff of porpoises as they pass by

–thud of falling spruce cones, nipped off by a red squirrel

–rattle of lupine seeds as they fall, when warm weather makes the ripe seed pods burst open

–rustling leaf litter as Steller’s jays bury nuts or search for previous stashes

–fluttering leaves as a wren flits through the shrubs, and the wren’s quiet little notes used to keep in contact with others

–creaking of tree trunks in the wind

–a woodpecker flaking off bark scales from a spruce

–clattering of dry leaves falling through twigs and branches

–bill-clacking of nestling herons

–murmuring of a beaver family in its lodge

–scraping of the ‘tongue’ of a banana slug feeding on a leaf

–the distant roar of sea lions and the far-away whoosh of a spouting whale

–whistling wings of goldeneye ducks taking off

–rhythmical lapping of water on a sandy beach or the quite different pattern of water lapping against rocks

–strong wind in conifers compared to that in deciduous trees

–geese talking as they travel north to the nesting grounds or south to the wintering grounds

–waves withdrawing over a pebble beach

–hoar frost crackling when it collapses

–the buzz of a bee changing as it enters a flower

–the grinding of deer or moose teeth when foraging or a beaver gnawing bark from a branch

–lake ice popping and groaning on a cold winter day

I’ve focused here on auditory perceptions. But perhaps it is useful to keep in mind that we can use all of our senses when we are out and about, and doing so can enrich the experience.

March meanderings

a beaver story, wolf tracks, twisted pines, and a raven’s prank

Our meanderings in March produced some interesting observations. One day we followed a tiny creek up a hill, through the forest, to a muskeg. At the edge of that muskeg, our canine companion showed great interest in some blueberry stems. We then saw that these stems had been cut by sharp teeth; just a few feet away there was a small, de-barked hemlock stump, and the upper part of the little tree was gone.

Then we found obscure old footprints in the snow that looked like beaver tracks, and down in a tiny gully were several bark-less blueberry stems. An opening in the ice at the bottom of the gully showed where the bark-eater had come and gone, connecting to the main creek. Of course, we then searched on downstream a short distance and soon spotted a small beaver lodge, with a cache of sticks in a pool not far away. This beaver had built several very small dams, creating little pools at the headwaters of the creek.

This is a strange place to find a resident beaver—and perhaps it is just an overwinter bivouac. The creek is extremely small, maybe just a foot wide, and offers little prospect of creating an extensive pond system. The beaver had harvested blueberry, alder, hemlock, and crabapple sticks, in the absence of more usual fare (cottonwood and willow). Soft, green aquatic vegetation would be rare to absent in this little drainage system, so this summer food would also not be available.

We imagined our beaver—probably a young one—swimming in the salt water from its natal stream as it dispersed to find a home of its own. Then it must have sniffed out the fresh water coming down to a beach and explored its way up to the headwaters of this little creek. At least it could overwinter here.

We were not the only ones to discover the beaver signs. A wolf had left it gigantic pawprints rather recently, as it checked out the lodge and cuttings before cruising over the ridge.

There were other things to see, too: Tracks of deer, porcupine, and grouse. Grouse scat that looked as if the bird had started to shift from winter food to soft summer food. An old, rotten log riddled with beetle borings full of frass (beetle feces) that was better preserved than the wood itself. Very fresh bird scat on the trail, berry-stained and full of false lily-of-the-valley seeds.

double-twisted-pine
Photo by Katherine Hocker

A big, dead, double-trunked shore pine claimed our attention. As do the great majority of dead pines we’ve looked at, this elegant specimen showed a strong twist to the right. In fact, I’d say that over ninety-nine percent of the many dead pines we’ve inspected have this right-hand spiral in the wood. So far, we have found no cogent explanation for this observation; all the suggested published ideas fall far short.

On another hike, at the edge of a muskeg, we were entertained by a raven that flew overhead and dropped something—thud—onto the snow next to the trail. It was a wad of moss and tiny twigs. Oh, I said—nesting material. But something didn’t look quite right (and would moss and little twigs make a thud??). So I reached out and turned over the wad. It was nesting material, all right, but not for a raven. It was an old robin’s nest, mud-walled inside the moss-and-twig mix, and frozen solid. Now the question became—what was that raven really doing? Bombing us, as message? Playing games?

Mid-April

early flowers and musings about ducks

Skunk cabbages stand as tall yellow sentinels (if deer haven’t nipped them off) in the marshy places. They send out their sweet aroma (not at all ‘skunky’!) and provide a cheery splash of color in the mostly gray-and-green forest. Yellow violets gleam along the forest trails, as the forest floor begins to green-up. The white flowers of miners’ lettuce are showing, along with the delicate little flowers of fern-leaf goldthread. And the purple mountain saxifrage is going strong on rocky outcrops even in the shadier sites.

fern-leaf-goldthread-early-development-through-the-snow-6-good-altered
Fern-leaf goldthread flowers emerging through the snow

Blueberry bushes at low elevations have already dropped many of their little pinkish bells. The deeper pink flowers of salmonberry are borne on canes that are just sending out new leaves. In addition to the early-blooming felt-leaf willow, other kinds of willows are producing their catkins.

In many places, alders have already dropped their male catkins, which have released their pollen for the wind to carry to the waiting female cones. I’ve found lots of catkins lying on the ground under male cottonwood trees too, but for some unknown reason, a substantial number of these have released only some of their pollen. However, the best part (for me) of cottonwood flowering is the light, clear, sweet aroma that fills the air near a stand of these trees. Look on the ground below a tree and find the yellow-brown bud scales and sniff ‘em!

I heard my first fox sparrow of the year in Sheep Creek valley recently, along with the varied thrushes, robins, Pacific wrens, and ruby-crowned kinglets, which have been singing for some time. Just a few days later, there were several singing fox sparrows in the valley. Although hermit thrushes are here, I’ve not yet heard them sing. I have two reports of chickadees cleaning out their nest cavities, and on one creek I have seen a male dipper on guard as his female incubates their clutch of eggs; with such an early start on the first brood, they should be able to rear a second one as well.

Here are some other sightings that were fun:

A pair of ravens harassed an eagle as it sat in the top of a tree, diving at it and yelling. Poor old eagle just hunched its head and took the abuse. Were those cranky ravens defending a nest? It didn’t seem so: after some minutes of continual persecution, both ravens took off and disappeared in the distance.

Out at the end of the Mendenhall Peninsula, under overhanging alders above the beach, I found a number of small piles of chewed-up, very clean barnacle shells. Some consumer had routinely used this place to off-load the shelly ballast after lunching on the prey. Who was the consumer? Maybe a raven or two, or perhaps some otters?

One day we found five pairs of buffleheads on Cashew Lake in the Mendenhall Glacier Rec area. Each pair cruised sedately, male and female side by side, occasionally diving, each pair in a different part of the lake. Suddenly a big kerfuffle broke out—much flapping and splashing and squawking. One male had decided to approach another male’s female, and that was cause for battle. The intruder was chased off, but only temporarily. He was soon back again, and the uproar was repeated, several times. The female who was the object of interest seemed to float quietly at a little distance and let the males duke it out. I think the original status quo was restored, but who could be sure, without banded birds!

Buffleheads are the smallest diving duck in North America. They nest in the Interior, in boreal forest and aspen parklands, near small lakes and ponds, where they feed on aquatic insects. They nest in cavities made by large woodpeckers such as flickers, but readily use nest boxes too. If buffleheads try to use a cavity with an opening that is large, they may be outcompeted and even beaten up by goldeneyes that want the same cavity.

They are reported to pair up mainly in winter but also during northward spring migration. Courtship and sometimes even mating occur en route. Buffleheads often keep the same mate from year to year, according to researchers. The interactions we saw on Cashew Lake suggest that mate fidelity may be challenged at times. There’s more to be learned about all this!