Foam Lake Birding No. 90

No. 90
Even though the weather has not been the best and I should be featuring some local bird, I would be remiss in not writing about the occurrence of the Magnificent Frigatebird at Fishing Lake this past July. I have seen many frigatebirds on both coasts in central Mexico, but to have seen one in Saskatchewan would have been something else. There is a better chance of seeing a full solar eclipse here (and with more predictability) than a reoccurrence of another frigatebird.
Frigatebirds (there are five species worldwide) are related to pelicans and cormorants, but behave more like gulls than anything else. Like pelicans and cormorants they are fish eating birds that have four toes joined by webbing, but have little else in common. Like gulls and terns, frigatebirds like to steal food from other birds, ironically from gulls and terns. Their speed and agility make piracy possible. Contrary to what has been written in some articles, frigatebirds feed themselves primarily by flying low over the water and plucking fish, turtles, jellyfish and birds on or near the surface - at least according to the Sibley and Smithsonian field guides. Though seemingly capable of swimming they never do, preferring to rest on trees, poles and so on.
The Magnificent Frigatebird, meaning: the Great War Vessel, is a goose sized bird that is mostly wings and tail. The body is actually quite small. Although it is about forty inches long and has a ninety inch (over seven feet) long wing span it is only about three pounds in weight, about the same as a good sized mallard. In fact it has the longest wing span in proportion to body weight of any bird in the world thus making it a buoyant and tireless flier. The tail is forked, but this can only be seen when the bird brakes in the air, otherwise, it is folded into a point. They are known wanderers having been recorded as far inland as Colorado and as far north as Newfoundland now, as far inland and as far north as Fishing Lake, Saskatchewan.
The colours are also quite distinctive. Unlike most of its relatives, the males and females are different. The males are all black save for a bare red throat that can be greatly inflated during breeding season; the females, like the one seen at Fishing Lake, are all black with a white breast; the juveniles are all black with a white head and breast. The juveniles change little for three years after which the males and females start to differentiate. Then, it takes at least two more years before they reach maturity. In one article about the Fishing Lake sighting, the writer speculates that the bird must have been a youngster that got lost somehow. However, according to the experts, this bird must have been at least five years old - hardly a beginner. Why would an adult stray so far from the tropics? Did it have an unhappy childhood? Nobody knows why it strayed, but everybody is sure glad it did.
Since I do not have a picture of a Magnificent Frigatebird, I decided to do a "minor feature" of a bird that is very common around here, especially in the spring. The Willet, formerly known as the Western Willet, is a crow sized, grey wading bird with a long, stout, straight, black bill. When wading the shallows it can only be described as nondescript. However, when it takes flight its field marks are diagnostic. The wings are a sharply defined black and white running the full length of both surfaces of the wing. In addition, its vocalization in flight is a loud and unmistakeable "pill will willet". When it lands it tends to keep its striped wings upraised for a second or two giving a viewer a second and better look. In summary: in flight, the bird is easy to identify; on the ground, not so much.
Getting this week's picture was a story unto itself. While birding in the San Elijo lagoon in California, I watched a small flock of Willets feeding on either side of a lagoon creek during low tide. Every few minutes a Willet or two would fly from one side to the other with their distinctive wing patterns begging for a picture. I would focus the camera on a calculated (guessed at) landing spot and hope for the bird to land there and to hold its wings upright long enough for me to get a picture. I suffered "umpteen" disappointments, but I did manage to get two good photos and decided to use the one with two birds in it. (Two is better than one?) In addition, there are two other Willets and three Marbled Godwits in the photo. Try to identify them. Answers in the next article.