Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Welkinweir's Winged Wonders

You never know what you’re going to see when you come to Welkinweir.  The rich variety of habitat – from the woodlands and meadows which surround the ponds and stream, to the arboretum’s colorful gardens – is a magnet to scores of bird species, mammals like Castor (see here, and here), whitetail deer, and Fred the woodchuck, turtles, frogs, and salamanders; and insects like our honeybees and monarch butterflies.  I saw the magical draw that our ponds in particular have last Thursday.

It started right at the beginning of the day, with the sighting of a wood duck pair swimming alongside the more common Canada geese on the pond.  You may have seen our two wood duck houses while walking along the smaller ponds in the woods near Welkinweir’s western edge.  We haven’t seen evidence that the ducks use these houses, but it’s encouraging to see them using the ponds nevertheless!

About a half hour later, I noticed the silhouette of a hawk-like bird in the sky over the pond.  This raptor had long, gracefully arching wings that had large white patches on its undersides; as those wings lifted, they also revealed the bird’s almost completely-white belly and legs.  As you might have already guessed, it was an osprey.

Osprey at the Kennedy Space Center.  Image credit: NASA
Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are an occasional site over Welkinweir, as they swoop over the great pond hunting for fish.  Also known as sea hawks, ospreys are a migratory species that spend their summers on the coast and along the shorelines of lakes, ponds and rivers as far north as the Hudson Bay and Alaska.  In the winter they travel to warmer climates, some flying as far south as Argentina! (source: "All About Birds", Cornell Lab of Ornithology,  In Pennsylvania, ospreys are listed under the Game and Wildlife Code as threatened and protected; federally and internationally, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (source: "Migratory Bird Treat Act of 1918", 
Digest of Federal Resource Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,

It was a real treat to see one of these graceful raptors soaring over the pond...
Pair of ospreys over Welkinweir's great pond.

...except that I didn't see just one!  Barely five minutes later, I saw a pair of ospreys circling in the sky, crying to one another with their odd chirping calls.  What were they talking about?  Perhaps it was the bald eagle that swooped over the pond soon afterwards!  It was a big, chunky-bodied, brown bird with wide, plank-like wings and the characteristic white head, and as the eagle glided over the pond, one of the ospreys started to harass it by diving at it repeatedly.  Apparently, the pond wasn't big enough for the three of them!  With the bald eagle swooping around to defend itself, the two raptors looked like a pair of fighter jets in a dogfight.  Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) have also been spotted along Welkinweir's ponds in the past, probably to hunt for fish like the ospreys.  I attempted to get photos of all the action, although I'm afraid that the bald eagle is impossible to spot; try to look for its white head, below, where it perched in a tree along the south shore of the pond.
Bald Eagle (in light-colored box) perched in a tree by Welkinweir's great pond

In the afternoon, a second possible bald eagle sighting inspired us to take a walk outside for a closer look.  While we searched, the bluebirds and tree swallows were out and about, as they hunted for insects on the wing and guarded their nest boxes. 
Male Eastern Bluebird (lower right corner) perched in one of Welkinweir's weeping cherry trees.

The bird turned out to be an osprey, and I tried to get a closer look:

The osprey didn't appreciate my attempts to sneak up on it, but I managed to get a photo of  it in flight.

My day ended watching the aerial acrobatics of not one, not two, but three ospreys over the pond.  Come visit Welkinweir's array of habitats, and see what wildlife you can find!

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