Photographed at Shoveler's Pond in Anahuac NWR
We called these birds Moorhens, but they changed the name to Common Gallinule.
The Common Gallinule swims like a duck and walks atop floating vegetation like a rail with its long and slender toes. This boldly marked rail has a brilliant red shield over the bill and a white racing stripe down its side. It squawks and whinnies from thick cover in marshes and ponds from Canada to Chile, peeking in and out of vegetation. This species was formerly called the Common Moorhen and is closely related to moorhen species in the Old World.
The Common Gallinule has long toes that make it possible to walk on soft mud and floating vegetation. The toes have no lobes or webbing to help with swimming, but the gallinule is a good swimmer anyway.
Newly hatched Common Gallinule chicks have spurs on their wings that help them climb into the nest or grab onto vegetation.
One subspecies of the Common Gallinule is found only in the Hawaiian Islands and is often called the Hawaiian Gallinule, or alae ula, where it is an endangered species. According to Hawaiian mythology the alae ula brought fire to humans, and its forehead was scorched in the process.
Common Gallinules expanded their range northward during the twentieth century. They started breeding in Pennsylvania for the first time in 1904; now they breed as far north as the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
Common Gallinules build nests to raise their young, but they also build platforms of matted vegetation to display for potential mates.
Photographed in Anahuac NWR
The waterborne American Coot is one good reminder that not everything that floats is a duck. A close look at a coot—that small head, those scrawny legs—reveals a different kind of bird entirely. Their dark bodies and white faces are common sights in nearly any open water across the continent, and they often mix with ducks. But they’re closer relatives of the gangly Sandhill Crane and the nearly invisible rails than of Mallards or teal.
Although it swims like a duck, the American Coot does not have webbed feet like a duck. Instead, each one of the coot’s long toes has broad lobes of skin that help it kick through the water. The broad lobes fold back each time the bird lifts its foot, so it doesn’t impede walking on dry land, though it supports the bird’s weight on mucky ground.
American Coots in the winter can be found in rafts of mixed waterfowl and in groups numbering up to several thousand individuals.
The ecological impact of common animals, like this ubiquitous waterbird, can be impressive when you add it all up. One estimate from Back Bay, Virginia, suggested that the local coot population ate 216 tons (in dry weight) of vegetation per winter.
The last sandpiper is the least sandpiper! Photographed on Bolivar Flats, one of its breeding areas. Lying flat on the sand with a 200-500mm lens you get a bird's eye view of this small sandpiper.
Least Sandpipers are the smallest of the small sandpipers known as “peeps”—not much bigger than a sparrow. They have distinctive yellow-green legs and a high-pitched creep call. Look for them on edges of mudflats or marshes, where they walk with a hunched posture and probe for little crustaceans, insects, and other invertebrates. This common but declining shorebird migrates thousands of miles between its arctic breeding grounds and wintering grounds as far south as Chile and Brazil.
The Least Sandpiper is the smallest shorebird in the world, weighing in at about 1 ounce and measuring 5-6 inches long. Males are slightly smaller than females.
Eastern populations probably fly nonstop over the ocean from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and New England to wintering grounds in northeastern South America, a distance of about 1,800 to 2,500 miles.
Researchers studying Least Sandpipers discovered a new feeding mechanism. While probing damp mud with their bills, the sandpipers use the surface tension of the water to transport prey quickly from their bill tips to their mouths.
Least Sandpipers hunt for food on slightly drier, higher ground compared to other small sandpipers. Although numerous worldwide, they usually flock in smaller numbers—dozens rather than hundreds or thousands—than some other shorebirds.