Sunday, April 11, 2010

Coots that aren't old

We had a little taste of bird-watchers' heaven, today, at the Lake Washington wetlands near the UW Botanical Gardens, which the University of Washington has been slowly restoring. Sure, we saw plenty of families with wild toddlers wielding sticks and running riot with their excited dogs. But mostly we encountered single persons and couples armed with binoculars and cameras boasting impressively large, long lenses. (To tell the truth, I'm within epsilon of becoming one of those people myself. We've got the binoculars already; all I need is a load of the right books and I'll be ready to go.)

Of course, I still don't know what to look for. On our way out, we came upon a woman standing rooted in the path, watching a nest of bush tits, whose young were sheltered within what looked like a thick, rotting piece of wood hanging randomly from the branch of a small-ish tree. (Interesting kind of nest, no?) Baby birds would pop in and out of tiny holes in it, taking the food their parents were bringing. But neither Tom nor I had recognized that that strip of old wood was actually a nest when we'd passed it going in the opposite direction. I did recognize the warblers, though. And the osprey that swooped low. We saw, as usual, a zillion kind of ducks, of course. (Though none of the turtles or blue herons we often see there.) Someone had posted on the noticeboard that they'd sighted some Eurasian wigeons in the cove, but we did not see them.

Most intriguing, for me, though, were the waterfowl known as "American Coots." Since Lake Washington is one of their favorite habitats year-round, I've probably seen them many times without noticing-- further out on the water. But a whole gaggle or covey or whatever of them were close to the marshy shore, hanging out in the reeds (where perhaps they'd built some nests). The strangest thing about them, besides their distinctive coloring, is the way they move. Here's what a birding site says about that:
American Coots are noisy, gregarious members of the rail family. They propel themselves through the water by pumping their heads back and forth. Flocks often forage along the shore or on lawns. They also dive for aquatic plants. To become airborne, they must scramble across the water with wings flapping vigorously. Coots will aggressively defend nesting territories, attacking each other with their feet.
I took their vigorous flappings of wings as wariness at my getting too close. Obviously I misunderstood! When Tom said he'd try to sneak up on them to get close enough (for my bottom-of-the-line camera) to get a picture, I was skeptical. In fact, though, he did creep up on them, and got surprisingly close. (I've seen him do this before, with blue herons.) I watched, in the meanwhile, through his binoculars.

So, if you've ever wondered what a coot (from which, presumably, comes the expression "old coot") looks like, here are a couple of pictures from this afternoon.

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