Seaweed Lovers

(Burrowing Owl Update Below)

American Coot (Fulica americana)

The Coot is about the same size as a small duck, but it’s not a duck. It has a narrow pointy beak, not a broad flat one, and its feet aren’t webbed like a duck’s, they have pockets. Check this item for details on their interesting feet. The American Coot is a rail. It’s the most commonly seen rail, yet it’s a family member of the shy Ridgway’s Rail, the King Rail, Clapper Rail, Invisible Rail (a real species), and dozens of others, many of them exotic and rarely seen. Coots are very sensitive about being confused with ducks, see “A Coot Speaks,” Jan 24 2019 ;-). At least one or two Coots lives in the park and can be seen here year round. Come fall and winter, migrants move in, sometimes by the dozen, and the Coots have a family reunion, hanging close together and moving as a body. See for example “Coot Explosion,” Dec 12 2019. So far this winter I haven’t noticed a big influx, but it’s early yet. They breed over a very large area in North America. Some of them don’t have a very long migration to get here.

Lake Merritt restroom unit interior

Coots have to work hard to get airborne but once there, they are strong flyers. They’re great divers, also, when they have to be, if there’s nothing for them to eat on or near the surface. I see them typically feeding on seaweed that’s attached to rocks at low tide, as shown in the video above. They’re very heavily focused on vegetable foods, particularly here, where they’re not breeding and don’t have chicks to feed. They’ll also climb on the grassy slope on the east side of the park and munch on grass.

American Coot (Fulica americana)

They’re said to be very vocal and even noisy in their breeding habitat but here in the park they keep pretty mum. They’re also reported to be highly aggressive and territorial in their breeding habitats, frequently attacking other species, including larger ones, but here I haven’t seen them act pushy toward any other species. In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered how smart they are, because I’ve seen them dive deep and bring up seaweed, only to surrender it to thieving American Wigeons, which can only dabble but not dive. See “The Wigeons Are Back,” Dec 4 2017.

I was disturbed to read, in the authoritative Birds of the World subscription resource: “Many hunters today shoot coots in legal hunting but do not retrieve them, contending they are inedible.” What the heck do they think they are doing, shooting birds out of the air and leaving them wounded or dead in the water? I can live with hunting for food, but there’s no excuse for killing and abandoning a species that does no harm.

Burrowing Owl Update

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) Jan 25 2023

This morning at about 9, the Burrowing Owl in the park was back in Perch B. Whatever had called it away during the morning hours on Monday and Tuesday no longer had power over the bird on Wednesday. It was a relief to see the bird back in this customary spot.

It’s certainly too early for its spring migration. In past years, the Burrowing Owls that settled in the park for the winter have remained until late February or mid-March, unless there is an emergency. (Last year, the one owl that everyone fondly remembers, that perched on the grass in easy view from the fence, disappeared in early February when it suffered an injury to its left wing.) The owls have an internal clock probably linked to the length of daylight that triggers them that their winter vacation is over and it’s time to fly back to their breeding territory.

During most of the about 20 minutes that my video camera recorded the owl this morning, the bird stood quietly and looked left and right in a routine way. But on a couple of occasions it engaged in the important business of preening, and those moments are captured in the short video above. The images below are frames from the video, illustrating a few of the many faces of this remarkable bird.

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