Pondering the Nature of Things

Sometimes the pursuit of birds is easier than one would imagine. Last week, for instance, we started off the morning by finding the illustrious and oftentimes elusive Histrionicus histrionics –otherwise known as the Harlequin duck — within minutes of arriving at Gairloch Gardens in Oakville. We spent about ten minutes marvelling at his plumage that looks as if was hand painted by a gifted stylist, and watched him swim further and further away from us, out into the depths of Lake Ontario, as if saying “that’s enough of a beautiful spectacle for now! Too many great looks at a Harlequin could render one smug! Usually you have to work much harder to find this kind of beauty!” And off he went.

We too departed soon after, though a group of Common Goldeneyes regaled us with a fabulous courtship display which involved some exquisite backward neck-stretching moves. And off we went in search of our next target bird.

Within an hour we managed to find the Neotropic Cormorant amidst about 500 Double crested cormorants. The fetching Neotropic variety is slightly smaller than the others and has white on its bill rather than the more common yellow on the double-crested. Needless to say I wouldn’t have been able to find this one on my own, but I was in the company of birdy geniuses who immediately detected a species whose size merited a second look. Meanwhile, I was busy watching the cormorants flying over the water with bits of supplies in their bill, heading toward the trees for nest-building rituals.

A few minutes later we saw our first tree swallows of the year and decided that spring had really begun in earnest. And then we decided to head to Burlington’s LaSalle Marina to see if the resident owl would put in an appearance for us. It seemed he had other plans that morning–an errand, no doubt–but instead, we caught a couple of ring-billed gulls putting on a different kind of show for us. Reproduction in birds is a curious process, often over before one even realizes what is going on, but the gulls seemed to engage in quite a process. The male mounted the female and, in a somewhat regal posture, began his courtship display which included flapping his wings in a mad frenzy and emitting guttural creaking vocalizations.

Here they are. Copulating Ring-billed gulls. Just in case you were curious. Image from here.

Here they are. Copulating Ring-billed gulls. Just in case you were curious. Image from here. Many more available on the Internet. This seems to be a favourite photo-essay topic among nature photographers. Evocative indeed.

This went on for some time before the male dis-mounted, and without another sound the gulls parted ways nonchalantly, as if nothing had ever happened and as if the two of them were total strangers. So very odd, and yet so very…dare I say human?

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