I love autumn, especially in Chautauqua County. At my house, I can sit on my porch and soak in the colorful beauty of the hills surrounding Burtis Bay. The red maple leaves are my favorites, followed closely by the burnt oranges and then the yellows. It never ceases to amaze me when Mother Nature applies her artistic touch to the trees, how suddenly each one becomes an individual standing out in the crowd.
This year, I missed most of the fall colors. I headed to Florida in early October when the leaves were still green and my yard was awash in color from my impatiens and wax begonias. I came back in early November to skeleton trees and brown flower beds thanks to the early snowfall. Sadly, I thought I had missed the best part of one of my favorite seasons when I saw them - the coots!
In my opinion, American Coots are one of nature's funniest comedians. There they are, hundreds and hundreds of them, just swimming around bobbing their heads like those little dogs in the back windows of cars. Swimming, diving, and moving in a wave like a fluttering flag lost in the wind if anything comes near. And, if you do come too close, they try to escape - frantically flapping their wings and scrambling on the surface of the lake, water splattering in all direction in a very ungraceful getaway. They make me smile and I could watch them for hours. But, what makes them do what they do? Why do they head bob like that, and why don't they just fly away like the mallards? These questions and the desire to learn more about these little birds made me do an internet search and pull every bird book I own.
Rafts of American Coots can be seen on Chautauqua Lake as they migrate south in the fall.
Photo by Susan M. Songster-Weaver
Red-eyed American Coots are small, blackish-gray waterbirds, only 12 to 16 inches long and weighing about a pound. Their white beaks, with a black band near the tip, and white frontal shields distinguish them from the moorhen, whose beak and shield are red with a yellow tip. They look like a black shadow on the lake as they move about in large groups called covers or rafts.
Did you know coots are not ducks? They belong to the Rallidae family, which are small to medium sized birds, including crakes and moorhens or gallinules. Coots have a triangular beak like a chicken, not a flat bill like a duck. Their feet are not webbed either. They have four lobed toes, three larger ones facing forward and one smaller one facing back. These feet allow the coots to walk on floating vegetation and scramble across the surface of the water, earning them the nickname ''splatterers.''
Coots have short, rounded wings, so it is difficult for them to take flight. They have to run across the water into the wind, flapping their wings to gain enough speed for lift-off, but once in the air, they can fly as well as any bird. Summers find coots in the northern United States and southern Canada. When the weather turns cold, they migrate in large flocks to our southern states and Mexico. Sadly, not everyone enjoys seeing the droves of coots. In urban areas, they can be considered pests. As omnivores, they forage on golf courses for insects and can make a mess with their droppings.
In Chautauqua County, we get to see a variety of migrating birds. So, the next time you see some interesting ones, do a little research. I am sure you will be amazed, as I was, at what you didn't know.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy presently has its 2011-12 membership drive under way and is seeking donations to conserve the Wells Bay Lakeshore. To support these efforts, visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or call 664-2166.