Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

By Their Beaks Shall Ye Know Them

Bert Gildart: Just prior to the turn of the century, Charles Darwin sailed on his good ship Beagle and into the Galapagos Islands. In part he landed there to further test his theory on the origin of the species and had learned much by studying the beaks of finches. He had found about a dozen different species of finches on these islands and the only feature that truly differentiated one from the other were the beaks. Some were short and squat, some thin and long, allowing each species to fit into the ecosystem in a different way.

Like Darwin’s finches, each bird shown here has unique capabilities mostly because of their beaks. In other words, though they had started from a common stock, with time they evolved and survived together because they all ate something different. In part, that feature, apparent in its beak, can help differentiate one bird from another.
That’s they way things are here at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Over 200 different species of birds winter here, and Janie and I were fortunate to see about 50 and photograph perhaps eight—on this our very first day in this remarkable refuge.

All of the photographs shown here were taken in a four-hour period, which says much about the profusion of bird life. Though I did eliminate a bit of the top from the original pelican photo, others remain uncropped. Most of the photographs were taken with a 600mm telephoto lens mounted on a Nikon D200. I changed the exposure of a few of the images on my computer, but only slightly. Essentially, they’re just as the camera recorded them. When the sun was shining on any bird that is mostly all-white, I underexposed slightly, so that they wouldn’t wash out.

White Ibis–the one with the down-curved bill. Essentially, it feeds on snails and other shell-like creatures and ye shall know them by their down-curved beaks.

White pelicans, a species that breeds on the prairie islands of Montana and North Dakota. Here, they’re swimming in a group, “herding” fish into a confined area so that they can insert their huge beaks into the water and then quickly swish their huge beaks upward. Brown pelicans use their beaks differently, in that they dive from overhead and then grab their prey.

Anhingas are dark colored and are one of the few birds that can actually swim under water, spearing their prey with their long, dagger-like beaks. When satiated, they climb out onto a rock and allow the sun to dry off their wings. They are one of the few birds that don’t have an oil gland. Though you might think it’s a cormorant, anhingas have straight beaks and not down-curved tip at the end of its upper mandible.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron: At first I thought this was a Black-crowned Night Heron until a volunteer working here at Ding Darling correctly identified it for me as an immature Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Key characteristics are the much thicker beak and smaller light spots on the back. By and large, it feeds on crayfish.

Snowy Egret: Often called the bird with the “golden slippers,” the Snowy Egret can only be confused with the Great Egret, but you can differentiate between the two by the color of their beaks. The snowy has a black beak and yellow feet, while the Great Egret has the reverse.

Great Egret: Of course birds also use their beaks to preen, or fix holes in their wings. Years ago in an ornithology course, I looked at the feathers under a low-powered microscope and could actually see small hook-like structures called barbicels. Preening fixes holes by reuniting the barbicels located on each tiny feather.

Judging by the number of people on the birding trail today, I conclude that we’re fortunate indeed to have a National Wildlife Refuge system. Ding Darling is but one of the 640 refuges in the system, and over the next few days, you’ll see that this 6,000-acre refuge provides more than just material for stories on beaks.

One Response to “By Their Beaks Shall Ye Know Them”

  1. Alcoholic Pass | Bert Gildart: Writer and Photographer Says:

    [...] *By Their Beaks Shall Ye Know Them [...]

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