What could possibly be better than getting up at 6:45am on a Sunday morning and driving an hour to tramp around in a cold, windswept marsh with ice-crusted water threatening to pour over the top of your hipboots and marsh-mud threatening to suck you under?
Nothing - not when the reward is to reach into a nest box just vacated by a startled female Hooded Merganser and gently take one of her eggs, feelng the warmth of incubation in your hand.
BirdCouple spent Sunday morning checking on Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser nest boxes at Huntley Meadows Park in Fairfax County, Virginia, just south of Washington, DC. It's a pocket of green just off the suburban wasteland of US Route 1 and maybe 5 miles south of the atrocity that is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project. But I digress...
Some serious equipment is needed for this endeavor. Lisa just loved her new hip boots. Very trendy, Princess...
Our first order of business was to replace an old nest box that was falling apart. It took some elbow grease to get the old bolts, which have been sitting there through years of rain, snow and heat, off the sucker. Then we put up the new one. Believe it or not, local racoons have learned to flip the little latches that were used to hook the doors on these boxes. Now the good folks who oversee this project have had to upgrade to twist bolts. I'm sure the racoons will figure that out in another year or two...
This box looks good. That's the point. It's actually kind of a sample box, in easy view for the walkers, joggers, photographers, etc. that visit Huntley Meadows. No birds have nested in this box for years. Glad they told us that after we hiked through muck and bramble to replace it.
OK, on to the real boxes. A 4-person team comprised of Lisa, Warren, our good friend Paul Bacich and his friend Myra checked a half-dozen nesting boxes, some of them literally out in the middle of the marsh... David Gorsline, like Paul a veteran of this project, went solo and checked out the other half of the boxes. You cannot do this without a good walking stick, which saves you when you're about to pitch over face-first into the ice-water-mud-muck:
This nest box was occupied by the afore-mentioned female Hooded Merganser, who was none too happy to see us. But the brave lady stayed on her eggs while we tramped around her domicile, peered in the box, etc. Using a mirror, Lisa got a look at the merganser on her nest - her eyes open in terror. At last - and surely as a last resort - she split, out the front door. Sorry, gal. We had to check out the eggs. Wow! Check it out:
The good news here is that, according to Paul (who is an expert on eggs and nestlings), there were only 5 nesting records of Hooded Mergs in Virginia until this project began at Huntley in the early '90s. The species is mostly known for nesting to the north. The bad news -- or really the sobering truth of nature -- is that only one or two of these little guys and gals will survive weather, disease and predation to adulthood.
(NOTE: No birds or eggs were harmed during our endeavors).
A lot of the other boxes were empty - including one we got to literally by wading through a 1/4 inch of ice, smashing our way through with walking sticks. Clever Warren was at the back of the line. But we did find a second box occupied, actually crammed full of Wood Duck eggs, 15 in all. See if you can tell the difference between these and the merganser eggs:
We tallied up our finds and then headed to Denny's for lots of coffee and a hot breakfast/brunch. Most of the conversation seemed to revolve around birding in WARM places. And then, napping and dreaming..... GOOD LUCK EGGS!