Thursday, October 20, 2011

October 20: Coots

Yesterday my birder friend Don Reimer reported seeing coots on Chickawaukie Lake in Rockland. This in itself is nothing unusual. Each fall a raft of coots, slate-grey waterbirds that are often mistaken for ducks, visits the lake until it ices over, usually hanging around into December. Part of the lake is in our Christmas Bird Count area, and most years we're out there counting coots the last Saturday before Christmas. One year we even came across a red-tailed hawk eating a coot near the public beach area of the lake. A coot is a good meal for a bird of prey, though apparently not very tasty to humans. (We debated whether or not to count that coot in our day's tally, and decided that since it had been alive earlier in the day, it was countable.)

So coots are regulars on the lake this time of year. What was remarkable about Don's report yesterday was the number of coots he observed: 615! I think the most I've ever seen at one time was 50 - 60 birds, 100 at most. I had to see this for myself. So on the way to a meeting in Rockland I stopped by the public beach parking lot. Offshore, I could see a dark mass on the water, a dense island of coots. A smaller bird could have walked across their backs. Without binoculars I had no way to really count them for myself, which would've been a challenge anyway because they were really packed together. Taking a moment to survey the scene, their behavior began to make sense to me. Perched in a nearby tree, looking right at the coot pack, was a big adult bald eagle. The coots were huddled up for security--a straggler would be fair game for the eagle.

Raft of coots afloat
till hungry hawks come, or ice
fills their wayside lake.

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