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Life and Death at Clear Creek Valley Park – June 13, 2020

June 14, 2020

Redtail Hawk on Tennyson St. cell tower. The butt of its mate is lower right..

The clouds help cool off the afternoon a little.

Without them the temperature would have jumped above 90 F (32.2 C) and staying outdoors would have been something less than bearable. As my cell phone was reading 87,88 F, it wasn’t so bad. I had gone to Clear Creek Valley Park to try out a new tripod and to see if it could steady my “bazooka” 150-600 mm lens. For still shots and birds wading slowly, not bad at all, it resulted in a higher percentage of sharp photos.

But for the motion shots there seems to be no alternative to the thing being handheld.

First thing noticed… the red tail hawk couple that often perches on the cell tower across from the Tennyson St. entrance to the Park was back. From where? Who knows. Still they were hiding, or trying to. Rather than perching atop the cell tower as they had done in the past, they were found lower down, at mid level. In fact, I only saw the larger female there, but when I got home and developed the hawk photos on a computer, the body of the mate was visible..

I have so many shots of this pair which returns season after season to watch the activity in the ponds either from atop the cell tower or the huge billboard that faces traffic on I-76 heading west. That gives them an equally panoramic view of the ponds – all four of them north of I-76 and probably a pretty decent vantage point to watch the activity in the four ponds south of I-76 at nearby Lowell Ponds.

wood duck mama and her ducking at Clear Creek Valley Park. Although there are four in the photo there were six in all

These past few weeks I’ve been to both places, but have concentrated on the western most pond of Lowell Ponds because of the wood duck activity there  has been intense – at least two mother wood ducks and, at different times, seventeen chicks of different sizes and ages were counted. But until today I’d never seen them some 200 yards to the north at Clear Creek Valley Park where they were today. Did one of the mama wood ducks simply go from pond to pond one night? Those in Clear Creek Valley, pictured here were having a fine time skirting across the waters (as the one just in front of its mom is doing and, as is the case with these little ones eating up a storm.

A person needs to be patient exploring a pond. What at first view seems like so little life, comes alive after ten, fifteen minute, sometimes longer. My brother-in-law, David Fey, speaks of a friend who waits at the same spot for hours for a bird to come. I’m not one of those who can do that, but I try to give a spot a good half hour and am often rewarded for this by a startling array of bird (and other) life that I had not noticed at first. So it happened yesterday; I had originally stopped after spotting four snowy egrets sitting on a little mudflat – of which there are several on the pond. By the time the camera was set on the tripod the egrets were long gone, but…

There was this avocet…

He was doing a fair amount of vocalizations and his calls made me think something was wrong. He would take off and fly from the edge of the pond from where I was standing to the far end, circle there, and then return. This was repeated three, four times over the course of ten minutes. A year ago, more or less at the same place, I’d had an encounter with one on the ground and was able to get within about fifteen feet of him. His wings spread, his vocalizations were shrill and defensive. I backed off. Although I never saw what it was he was defending (from his coloring I was confident it was a male) but speculated that there was a nest nearby somewhere on the ground and read later that avocets nest along edges of shallow weedy ponds or lakes – exactly the kind of terrain where we had our little stand off.

Avocet coming in for a landing from the other side of the pond where he was concerned with “something”.

Here I was a year later and was pretty sure that this male avocet, once again, was “sounding the alarm”… for something, but what? He was in the shallow area of pond water right near the shore, his beak open, shrieking repeatedly. Then just below me two avocet chicks appeared. Healthy and strong they were doing what chicks do, eating their way through a section of the pond near the weeds, occasionally making it for the weeds to rest and hide, coming out again and like two little vacuum cleaners sucking up everything in their path that they could fit into their mouths with their elongated beaks, not so long as those of full adults, but distinct from other chicks already from birth.

Occasionally an intruder – red-winged blackbirds in particular – would get too close to these chicks and the adult avocet would chase them, and others, away. Clearly he was protecting the little ones who seemed calm, undisturbed an unaware of the dangers that might befall them – classic toddlers. But then, letting off a series of what sounded to me like warning signals, off the parent would go again, flying to the other side of the pond, making a loop right by my head several times as if warning me not to get any closer (I didn’t) to his chicks and off he’d go to the far side. He’d stay there for several minutes, agitated, and kept returning to a certain spot. After watching this for sometime finally I could make out there was another adult avocet there. Time to slowly and quietly stroll over to near that side of the pond to see for myself.

I got there just as the male avocet was landing next to a female nearby.

She was watching over an avocet chick. Now the alarm calls made sense. The little one was having trouble staying afloat. It would surface, try with its little wings to stay afloat, sink back in the water. Despite the fact it was only a few inches deep there, the chick could not stay afloat. And all of a sudden there I was watching a heart-wrenching scene. The chick was drowning. The male adult’s dilemma was clear; he was caught between protecting the two chicks feeding on the one side of the pond, and trying, along with his partner to save the chick in trouble on the other side. Beside himself (so it seemed to me), he flew back and forth in a kind of obsessive-compulsive alarm, not sure which situation needed his attention more.

The little chick in trouble was running out of energy and it was pretty clear that the end was near and it was about to drown. In the five or so minutes before it went under, both adults stood over it, as if not to let it die alone. I know I am anthropomorphizing here, but that was how it appeared to my untrained (when it comes to birds) eye. The pair stayed watching over the dying chick, together, helpless to intervene. Then its flaying around stopped and it went under. (Addition later) Looking at another photo of the incident after this posting, it turned out that a large snapping turtle had latched on to the avocet chick from behind. What I was witnessing was a tug of war between the chick and the turtle, with the turtle winning and the parent avocets helpless to do anything other than engage in a death watch. (See last photo  below).

The avocet chick from the other side of the pond; he’s one of those who made it. Notice his dagger like beak already. Compare with the adult beak above.

Look to the right of the chick, there is the shape of a turtle underwater that is pulling the chick down. The next photo of the series (not posted) could simply be titled “the end.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill Conklin permalink
    June 14, 2020 12:33 pm

    Excellent pictures and so close to North Denver!

  2. Phil Jones permalink
    June 14, 2020 1:27 pm

    Yeah, nature ain’t particularly kind to the young. I jog next to a small lake that its inhabited by about 25-30 Canada geese. Every spring a big batch of “furry” yellow little ones appear, but as the weeks go by the number of little ones diminishes. What started out as a gang of 20 or so may end up with only two or three ultimate survivors. The culprits, I think, are snapping turtles in the water and foxes and perhaps some neighborhood cats on land.

    • June 14, 2020 2:41 pm

      Phil… you are, among other things, a psychic. I continued to process the photos and yes, indeed it was a rather large snapping turtle that had his teeth securely fastened to the leg of the avocet chick. I couldn’t see that until the last few photos but there it was, clear as day. Will post shortly with an explanation. The last photo of the series shows the turtle eating it. I won’t post that one. Right on. Mystery solved.

  3. Mike Wilzoch permalink
    June 14, 2020 1:56 pm

    Odd that out of all I’ve read today, this one stuck with me. Read it a couple times, which I sometimes do with a piece that I find is particularly well written or is otherwise out of the ordinary. Maybe it’s the circuit overload with the reporting of the cataclysms surrounding us. But, even with the sad ending, I appreciated being taken to that small slice of life, usually unnoticed. With the attention to detail, and the well versed empathy for the life and death happening there, the poignance of those moments made me think about the notion that the parents, powerless to change the outcome, still did all that they could–even if it was to see that the little one didn’t die alone.

    • June 14, 2020 2:43 pm

      Mike, as I just wrote another friend… a big snapping turtle got it from behind and dragged it down and proceeded, rudely, right in front its mother, to eat it.

  4. tim mccarthy permalink
    June 18, 2020 12:25 pm

    My son saw snapping turtles mating at that lake this spring. Also seen, immature pelicans on Baker Reservoir. Immature ones have some black feathers on the top of their heads, and down the back of the neck. I am enjoying your nature posts. thanks

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