It’s become a spring ritual for my wife, Sue, and me to visit some local wetlands to see the yellow-headed blackbirds when they return. These striking birds are among the largest of the blackbird clan. The males sport bright yellow heads and show a white patch on their wings when in flight. Their song is something like a very rusty barn door hinge, but sometimes it’s the only clue that the birds are present. They can be hard to see when they perch in thick cattail or bull rush vegetation over the water. We visited Colo Bog, a state-managed prairie and wetland complex east of Colo, on May 5, and were rewarded with a couple of yellow-head sightings.
Recent rains have filled the wetlands and made them attractive to many other birds, as well. We were lucky to spy three relatively rare (for our area) white-faced ibis feeding in the grass just north of the old Lincoln Highway. These exotic looking crow-sized wading birds don’t really have white faces. In fact, the narrow white edging that surrounds their bare, red-skinned faces is barely visible. They have long, down-curved bills and glossy dark green backs and deep red breasts. They look like something you’d find in a Florida swamp, but their breeding range is primarily to our west; as close as Nebraska.
We enjoyed seeing a variety of ducks, including mallards and little blue-winged teal in their finest breeding plumage. Some lesser scaup, a species that feeds by diving for aquatic vegetation and invertebrates, were also present. Some of the teal and mallards will likely stay to nest in the area now that the wetlands are full again. While the teal were still visible as pairs, some of the mallards were lone drakes, indicating that their hens may already be sitting on nests.
Ducks on the big pond south of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks were made more visible by the hunting activity of a young bald eagle. The bird was likely about three years old, since its head and tail were just starting to show some white feathers. It won’t gain its pure white head and tail until its fourth year. The eagle had obviously learned the art of hunting. A stiff east breeze was blowing across the marsh, lifting little whitecaps on the water and allowing the eagle to virtually hover over areas it wanted to inspect more closely. We watched the eagle work back and forth, up and down the shorelines, for nearly 20 minutes. The ducks all lifted off and flew to the north end of the pond when the eagle was flying over the south end and reversed the process when it moved over the north end. Several times the eagle dropped its huge taloned feet and dipped toward the water, only to rise back into the air again. We had decided it was time to return home when the eagle flew to the northeast end of the pond, nearest the parking lot where we had been watching with binoculars. I grabbed the binoculars again in time to watch the eagle make a feinting dip toward the shoreline grass, rise up and momentarily hover again, and then drop all the way into the grass with its feet extended. It emerged a few seconds later with a coot dangling in its feet.
The show still wasn’t over. Red-winged blackbirds were defending nesting territories all around the edge of the pond. They began to harass the eagle as it tried to find a good spot to perch and eat its breakfast. They chased the eagle all over the area, sometimes diving down to hit it on the back as it flew. It first landed in the prairie not far from the pond, but that was still too close for the blackbird’s comfort. It lifted off, still carrying the coot, and finally found a peaceful place away from the blackbirds to enjoy its breakfast far out in a bean field south of the marsh.
You can see some great filming of hunting eagles and other wildlife on TV nature programs, but there’s nothing like being there and seeing it in person.