Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the January 12, 2007 Newsletter issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

The reservoir next to which I camped over the weekend harbored hundreds of American Coots -- those blackish, ducklike birds with white beaks you see so often in open water. I say "ducklike" because they're not ducks. Coots don't have webbed feet or flattish beaks like ducks. Coots are in the Rail Family. You can see a coot at http://www.johnsonmill.com/images/American%20Coot.jpg.

Blue-winged Teal also populated the lake in smaller numbers. These are small, prim-looking ducks, as shown at http://www.virtualbirder.com/vbirder/stimac/BWTeal.jpg.

The two species sometimes mingled and when I saw them together I couldn't keep from philosophizing about their very different living strategies.

For, coots hang out in small, loose flocks, with each bird more or less doing his own thing. In a flock of three, one bird may be diving deeply for food, another may be preening, and the third signaling his mates with head-bobbing and calling while the mates seem to ignore him altogether. The smaller, more elegant-looking Blue- winged Teal, however, stay in tightly constituted flocks of 15-30 or more birds. They're nervously alert and fly away fast if anything looks suspicious. While coots seem content eating any aquatic vegetation they can stuff into their mouths, the teal appear to be more selective, apparently relishing aquatic insects and other invertebrates along with their aquatic-plant diet.

In other words, the two species formed a classic couple -- like the slob and the dandy, the flexible generalist and the finicky specialist, the unfocused liberal and the obsessive conservative. Once again Mother Nature shows that She doesn't favor one manner over the other, but She does insist on diversity.

Sometimes the teal in their methodical foraging uprooted aquatic vegetation that the coots then opportunistically ate. Some coots seemed to hang around the teal just for the free scrounging. Since there was plenty of aquatic vegetation to go around I almost got the notion that the coots were freeloading just for the fun of it!

At dusk when there was hardly any light left a good number of coots drifted into a little inlet near my tent where they roosted. It was too dark for me to see but it sounded as if they climbed onto shrub limbs emerging from the water.

During the night sometimes a coot would erupt into the kind of nasally squeaky, rattling and clucking heard by clicking on one of the audio icons at the page bottom linked to here.

There was a nearly full moon last weekend. What a pleasure lying in my tent with its open-web top while the moonlight flooded in, crickets chimed, frogs croaked, and those good-ol'-boy coots out there whooped it up in the moonlight.