Pond-side Birdwatching in Florida,
from Chaplain Bob’s Backyard: Part 1
by James J. S. Johnson
He turneth the wilderness into a standing water [’agam = “pond”], and dry ground into water-springs. (Psalm 107:35)
Another wonderful morning in St. Petersburg (Florida), gazing at the duck pond and its marshy shores, with mocha coffee, buttered rye toast, and my feet propped up, birdwatching from the pond-side backyard of Chaplain Bob and Marcia Webel — under a huge beach umbrella, shielded from the occasional post-digestion droppings (!) from several ibises and ospreys perched in branches that hung over where were sat, birdwatching, properly outfitted with binoculars, coffee mugs, breakfast foods, and a bird-book. That is what I was doing, by God’s grace, on Monday morning (2-9-AD2015) during February (which, by the way, is officially “National Bird-Feeding Month” – see 103rd Congress, Volume 140, Congressional Record, for 2-23-1994, U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. John Porter speaking on “National Wild Bird Feeding Month”).
The lacustrine birds (in this backyard-and-pond setting) were busy, busy, busy, — and noisy! — with their morning activities. Most of them were ducks (mallards and lesser scaups). These lentic water-loving birds were busy: some were paddling across the pond, quacking, splashing, dabbling or diving, others were perching on shoreline tree branches, or loitering in the pond-edge marshy plants. Most of them were sporadically flying here and there, sometimes alone, sometimes as a group. (And they noticed the presence of turtles in the water, as well as a dog on the shoreline.) Sometimes tall wading birds (e.g., egrets and herons) perched atop the roofs of houses near the pond-shore. In that one morning, in just an hour or two, I saw at least 14 different birds, plus we heard the distinctive cooing of a mourning dove!
To memorialize the happy experience (which was all the more enjoyable because it was shared with my good friends Bob and Marcia Webel), please appreciate this quick report on those pond-side birds, blended with a few thoughts about those fair fowl — all of which birds were so carefully made and maintained by our Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, it would take too long to report, now, on all 15 birds that we then observed. So this report (God willing) will be just the first installment – reporting on the Great Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, Mallard, Double-Crested Cormorant, and Black Vulture, — within what should be a mini-series, eventually covering all 15 of those beautiful-to-behold backyard-pond-birds.
GREAT BLUE HERON (Ardea herodias). The Great Blue Heron is a tall, majestic egret-like bird, poised and dignified. It can stand still as a statue for a long time, waiting for its food to become snatchable. When the heron spies its prey (likely a fish or frog – but maybe a small mammal, bird, lizard, or even a snake!), at the side of a pond, it stabs with sudden speed – the prey never saw that powerful, sharp, dagger-like beak coming – till it was too late! When in flight, the Great Blue Heron is graceful, purposeful, and dignified. The National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Birds – Eastern Region (Alfred A, Knopf, 1994 revised edition), co-authored by John Bull & John Farrand, Jr., reports (at its page 367) this description of the Great Blue Heron: “A common, large, mainly [Confederate] grayish heron with pale or yellowish bill.” Its most habitat – which changes with seasonal migrations — is a pond’s edge, or that of a lake, stream, river, or marshland. What a regal bird! “For most of us, sightings of great blue herons are confined to a glimpse of the bird as it flies slowly and steadily overhead, wings arching gracefully down with each beat, neck bent back, and feet trailing behind. At other times we see it on its feeding grounds, standing motionless and staring intently into shallow water, or wading with measured steps as it searches for prey.” [Quoting from “Great Blue Heron”, by Donald W. Stokes & Lillian Q. Stokes, in Bird Behavior, Volume III (Little, Brown & Co., 1989), page 25.]
BROWN PELICAN (Pelecanus occidentalis). In their Field Guide to North American Birds – Eastern Region (noted above, in the Great Blue Heron entry), Bull & Farrand describe (at page 359) the Brown Pelican as a “very large, stocky bird with a dark brown body and a long flat bill”. The adult storks have an ivory-white head, dark throat pouch, with dark brown hindneck coloring during the mating season. The immature storks have dark brown heads and ivory-white breasts. These pelicans are year-round residents of Florida’s coastlands. Bull & Farrand (on page 359) also report that the Brown Pelican is the “only nonwhite pelican in the world”, describing its eating habit as follows: “…this marine bird obtains its food by diving from the air, its wings half folded as it plunges into the surf. During one of these dives, the pouched bill takes in both fish and water; the bird drains out the water before throwing its head back and swallowing the fish.” Donald and Lillian Stokes contrast this eating habit with that of the American White Pelican, which “feeds while floating on the water”. (See Donald W. Stokes & Lillian Q. Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to Birds – Eastern Region [Little, Brown & Co., 1996], page 25.) One characteristic behavior of pelicans – the world over (including the Holy Land) – is the practice of adult pelicans regurgitating partially digested food into the mouths of their young. “Pelicans” (Hebrew noun: qa’ath) are mentioned in Leviticus 11:18, Deuteronomy 14:17, and Psalm 102:6 [v. 7 in the Hebrew Bible’s verse numbering] – and apparently also in Isaiah 34:11 and Zephaniah 2:14. George Cansdale says: “All pelicans feed their young by partly digested food, taken by the chick as it puts its head down the parent’s throat. This regurgitation was the basis of the LXX and [Vulgate translation for] pelican, for [the Hebrew noun] qa’ath is said to mean ‘vomiter’.” (Quoting George S. Cansdale, All the Animals of the Bible [Zondervan, 1976], page 157.) Cansdale rightly notices this, because the Hebrew noun for “vomitus” is qa’ (an etymologically related noun, which appears in Proverbs 26:11).
MALLARD (a/k/a “GREEN-HEAD”: Anas platyrhynchos). Mallards are nicknamed “green-heads”, due to the males’ iridescent green heads (which are bordered by a white neck ring). The mallard male’s breast is chestnut-hued. Mallards live both on the coasts and inland (at ponds, lakes, prairie potholes, marshlands, including saltmarshes), including the entirety of America’s lower 48 states, so they are common (and well-known to American birdwatchers), so commonly known facts about them will not be repeated here. Bull & Farrand [noted above, in the entry on Great Blue Heron] reports that the Mallard “is undoubtedly the most abundant duck in the world” (quoting page 392). Mallards are not only relatively ubiquitous, in their migratory or residential ranges (living or visiting in America, wherever migratory or residential ducks might be found), they are not shy around the habitat “edges” of human settlements. Mallards frequent parks and backyards near ponds or other water bodies (including manmade reservoirs), often learning (and anticipating) that humans might provide bread crumbs or popcorn. (But if you throw a piece of rotten banana into pond-water the mallards will not eat it.) Donald Stokes reports that males and females make different noises: “The quacking sound, which I had assumed that all Ducks made, can be made only by the female. The male has two other calls of his own – a nasal rhaeb sound and a short Whistle-call, the latter accompanying all of the group courtship displays.” (Donald W. Stokes, A Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume I (Stokes Nature Guides, Little, Brown & Co., 1979, page 31) Stokes goes on to say (pages 31-32) that this pattern of vocal behavior is not limited to Mallards – it also is observed in similar ducks including Gadwalls, Widgeons, Teals, Black Ducks, and Pintails. Remember, therefore, if you see a large group of Mallards on a pond, and you hear a lot of quacking, it’s the females who are making all that noise. (They might be trying to frighten of a turtle or other animal that is getting too close to their ducklings!)
Mallards have good memories (as do all birds, I assume), and I have personal knowledge of that fact. More than 15 years ago, my son and I would regularly feed the ducks (mostly mallards, plus lesser scaups during the winter months) at a pond near Furneaux Creek (in Denton County, Texas), in the evening. But one day we were in a hurry — I don’t recall why — so we drove straight home, bypassing the pond, then driving about a block, taking a right turn, then after another block taking another right turn, then driving down the hilly street to near the end of the cul-de-sac in our neighborhood, parking the car by our mailbox. However, as we got out of the car (and I approached our mailbox at the edge of our small front yard), and as we stepped onto the sidewalk toward our home’s front yard, we were greeted by a host of energetically quacking ducks! — apparently they wanted to know why we didn’t make our usual stop to feed them at the pond. Embarrassed, we quickly found something to feed them, and we quickly scattered food scraps on our front yard, to satisfy our avian guests (and they gobbled up all the bread scraps)! Yes, I felt a bit ashamed of myself, that day, for disappointing the mallards that day — but I’m pretty sure that they “forgave” us. Life gets busy — but that should not become an excuse for ignoring those whom we have an opportunity to be kind to (Galatians 6:10), even if they are mallards who live at a nearby pond.
DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax auritus). The male of this bird is basically black, like a super-sized crow, with a goldish-orange bill and throat pouch, featuring a long neck that is usually posed in an S curve if perching. (The female’s coloring is lighter – somewhat brownish-grey.) But why is this bird called “double-crested”? Don’t expect to observe any “crests” on its head (like a cardinal or a Steller’s jay), much less two of them! Donald and Lillian Stokes inform us that the description “refers to crests that grow during breeding” that, even then, are “hard to see”. (Stokes & Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to Birds – Eastern Region [noted above, in entry on Brown Pelican], page 27.) Stokes & Stokes also note (on page 27) that this cormorant is the most common cormorant seen in the Eastern region of America, on Atlantic (and Gulf of Mexico) coasts and farther inland, often wintering throughout the eastern half of Texas, and residing year-round in Florida. (For example, the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary — located in McKinney, Texas — is a good place to view these cormorants.) Cormorants are known to live in the coastal areas of the Holy Land. The darting-to-its-prey habit, of diving cormorants, fits the Hebrew noun, shalak, often translated as “cormorant” (see Leviticus 11:17 & Deuteronomy 14:17). Like anhingas, these dark birds perch with outstretched wings, to dry out their wings after diving into and swimming in water for food (usually fish). Like vultures, eagles, and hawks, these large birds have a bit of difficulty launching their heavy bodies from the ground, so after they do ascend high enough, to reach rising thermal air currents, they position themselves to “ride” those air currents (sometimes ascending as if riding an elevator), soaring and gliding whenever those air currents are conveniently available. The double-crested cormorant’s neck is crooked in flight, unlike other cormorants. These are gregarious birds – they nest in colonies and they often fly in groups, either in a straight line of in V formation. (See Stokes & Stokes, page 27; see also page 361 of Bull & Farrand [noted above, in entry for Great Blue Heron].)
BLACK VULTURE (Coragyps atratus). This eagle-like scavenger’s grey face distinguishes it from its cousin, the Turkey Vulture, which has a reddish-pink face Both of those faces are wrinkled, somber-looking, and – to put it bluntly – ugly. The Black Vulture is distinguished by its conspicuously “short square tail that barely projects from the rear edge of the wings and by a whitish patch toward the wing tip”. (Quoting Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds Eastern Birds: A Completely New Guide to All the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, abbreviated as “Eastern Birds” [Peterson Field Guides, Houghton Mifflin, 1980] page 160, with illustration on page 161.) Black Vultures are somewhat feistier than their slightly larger cousins; they are known to scare off Turkey Vultures when there is competition for carrion. (See Bull & Farrand [noted above, in entry for Great Blue Heron] at pages 416-417. On the average, a Turkey Vulture grows about 4 inches larger than a Black Vulture, — yet both are about 2 feet long, from bill tip to tail tip. Anyway, a vulture (sometimes colloquially called a “buzzard”) is a vulture is a vulture, and this is a vulture! Vultures eat dead stuff – and sometimes even defenseless live animals. Scavengers by God’s design (serving as garbage collectors/processors for this fallen world), vultures love to pick over and eat dead stuff! God gave it a “naked” (featherless) head, which may be an advantage for keeping rotten food from besmirching its head with contagion, which might be more likely if its head was covered in feathers. But Black Vultures — like other vultures — routinely consume flies-infested, rotting, bacteria-breeding dead animal carcasses — why do they not get sick and die themselves of botulism or some other kind of food poisoning? Dan “the Animal-man” Breeding has the answer:
“What is a vulture’s job? They find and eat what I call “road pizza.” They basically help keep the environment livable by limiting the build-up of dead animals and the spread of disease. God carefully designed vultures, giving them the needed tools to find, digest, and keep clean after eating dead animals. Most meat-eating animals can find their dinner because it is mobile. Movement makes finding things easier. Have you noticed that when someone walks through your peripheral vision, you are acutely aware of it? But if you’ve misplaced your keys, it can take hours before you find them. God gave Buzz and vultures like him two special designs to help them find their motionless dinner—keen eyesight and an extraordinary sense of smell.
Vultures have very sharp eyesight. Even when they are soaring high above the ground, they can still see everything below them. God even provided them with sunglasses to protect their eyes against the sun’s harsh light. Vultures have dark lines around their eyes, which work the same way as the dark lines underneath a football player’s eyes. The dark color absorbs sunlight, reducing glare. This way, vultures don’t have to worry about missing a single detail. The lesser yellow-headed vultures have another advantage over most birds: a keen sense of smell. Their nares, or nose openings, look like holes in their beak. Wind from any direction funnels through the nares, which leads to the largest amount of sniffing possible. Each breeze is loaded with information, so God equipped these vultures with a very large olfactory lobe, able to handle all that information. Once the vultures find their dinner, how can they possibly eat it? Most other animals would get sick from eating dead animals. Why don’t vultures get sick all the time? God gave them a very special digestive system. The acid in their crop (which functions like our stomach) is one of the strongest in the natural world. Strong enough to kill the harmful bacteria found in their dinner, it keeps them from getting sick from pretty much anything! In fact, vultures can use their digestive juices to defend themselves. If you were to startle a vulture while it was eating, you’d better back up quickly—vultures will vomit on you if you’re not careful. This not only makes them lighter (so they can more easily escape), but with the addition of the digestive acid, their lunch now smells much worse.”
(Quoting from Dan Breeding, “Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture” [Answers in Genesis, 3-14-AD2012], posted at https://answersingenesis.org/birds/lesser-yellow-headed-vulture/ .)
In the Holy Land proper (i.e., Israel), as well as in southwestern Europe and northern Africa to India, there is a vulture – the Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus – a/k/a White Scavenger Vulture) – that appears to match the Hebrew nouns rachma in Leviticus 11:18 (q.v.) and rachamah in Deuteronomy 14:17 (q.v.), and that same bird is nowadays known in Arabic as rachmah, essentially the same word. (See, accord, George S. Cansdale, All the Animals of the Bible [Zondervan, 1976], pages 145-146.) The Black Vulture soars high in the sky, with a wingspan of about 5 feet (!), often in wide circles, scanning the ground for carrion – something dead yet nutritious to eat. Scouting for rotting animal carcasses, vultures monitor the land below them: marshy coastlands, tree-spotted hillsides, grasslands and other open fields, not-so-dense forests, riparian shore-banks, bushy thickets, — and but I’m not sure about the famous Hinckley under-brush of Minnesota (that we have heard so much about from Dr. Stan Toussaint — although he has confirmed that at Hinckley “the men are men, pansies are flowers, and the women are slightly above average”). The Black Vulture’s body is heavy – like an eagle – so its wing-flappings are few, if possible, to conserve energy. “Note the quick labored flapping — alternating with short glides”, notices Roger Tory Peterson (Eastern Birds, at page 160). Its black-to-grey wings are two-tone-colored, with the flight feathers that trail behind the wings being paler (Peterson, Eastern Birds, page 160; — see also page 91 of Stokes & Stokes, Eastern Region, noted above in entry on Brown Pelican). These scavengers are both residents and migrants: they reside in most of the southern half of America’s lower 48 states, year-round, and summer in the northern half of those states. Vultures are not picky eaters! Roadkill, or even a partially picked-over animal carcass, is a wonderful “fast food” for a vulture. If the roadkill (or other available animal carcass) is large enough it might provide a quick picnic for a family of vultures.
Wow! That’s just 5 of the 15 birds we observed that morning, in the Webels’ pond-side backyard. Stay tuned! God willing, the other 10 birds will be given their proper recognition, at this excellent bird-site!
(On the morning of February 9th, AD2015, from the pond-side backyard of Bob & Marcia Webel (while enjoying breakfast and Christian fellowship with the Webels), I saw 14 birds: Great Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, Mallard, Double-Crested Cormorant, and Black Vulture – as reported above – plus Wood Stork, Lesser Scaup, Osprey, Muscovy Duck, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, White Ibis, Common Tern, and Florida Gallinule, — plus the cooing of a nearby Mourning Dove was clearly recognizable. It is hoped (D.v.) that later reports can supplement this one, so the latter-listed 10 birds will be properly recognized for their lacustrine appearances that morning.)
James J. S. Johnson loves duck ponds, having formerly taught Environmental Limnology and Water Quality Monitoring for Dallas Christian College, as well as other courses on ecology and ornithology. As noted in a recent comment to Emma Foster’s fascinating bird tale “The Old Man and the Ibises” (posted 2-11-AD2015), Jim enjoyed the habit of feeding ducks at a neighborhood pond during years when he lived near Furneaux Creek (in Carrollton, Texas). Nowadays, from time to time, Jim feeds ducks (mostly mallards) and geese (mostly Canada geese) that visit the pond at the edge of his present home’s backyard. Backyards and ponds are for bird-watching!