40 Species in the Refuge System – Part 3

Today is the third installment of “40 Species in the Refuge System” to celebrate our 40th anniversary. Click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2. This time, we are talking about birds! Waterfowl, birds of prey, and more are featured in this edition. Ranging from the Northern pintail, down to the wild turkey, the Refuge System is home to a huge variety of birds. Here is a very small snapshot of some of the species:


Northern pintail


A male northern pintail at Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge | Jenny Ross
A male northern pintail   | Jenny Ross

The striking markings and long tail with its long-neck and slim silhouette make males easy to identify. The females can be recognized by their graceful long necked shape. Northern pintails breed in a range of habitats across North America, Europe, and Asia. It is among the earliest nesting ducks in North America beginning shortly after ice-out in many northern areas. Populations of this bird have been in the decline in most of their range, with a cumulative decline of 69 percent from 1966 to 2010. The 2014 State of the Birds listed them as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. Learn more about the Northern pintail.


Common loon


Common loon at Seney National Wildlife Refuge | Teresa McGill
Common loon at Seney National Wildlife Refuge | Teresa McGill

Minnesota’s state bird is known for its wailing call, which naturalist John Muir described as “One of the wildest and most striking of all wilderness sounds.” Another unique feature of this bird is that it’s bones are nearly solid. Most birds have hollow bones, but the denser bones of the common loon allow it to dive as deep as 200 feet below the water’s surface to search for fish, frogs, leeches, crayfish, and other prey. Common loons have a velvety appearance with black heads and backs complemented by a band of small white patches around the neck. Listed as threatened in the state of New Hampshire, the loons are threatened by habitat disturbance. Thankfully since recovery efforts began in 1976, the populations have begun to increase.  Learn more about the Common Loon.


Western grebe


Western Grebe mating dance at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge | Brian L. Currie

The western grebe has a beautiful courtship display. Known as “rushing,” two birds turn to one side, lunge forward simultaneously with their bodies completely out of the water and race across the water side by side with their necks curved gracefully forward. Click here to watch a pair of grebes perform this dance. They spend almost all of their time in the water, and are very awkward on land. Their legs sit very far back on their bodies making walking difficult. Since the majority of their time is spent in the water, that is also where they place their nests. Most often, the nest is built on floating vegetation hidden among emergent plants. They often nest in colonies with hundreds or even thousands of nests on one lake. Learn more about the Western grebe.


Harlequin duck


Harlequin ducks at Sachuest Point National WIldlife Refuge | Thomas Tetzner, USFWS
Harlequin ducks at Sachuest Point National WIldlife Refuge | Thomas Tetzner, USFWS

Preferring faster moving waters, the Harlequin duck lives in mountain streams and rivers, usually in forested regions. In winter, they can be found in turbulent coastal waters, especially in rocky regions. The male Harlequin is very distinct with a deep slate blue body color, enlivened by white stripes, crescents, and spots on the head, neck, and scapulars. The sides are chestnut. The females resemble female buffleheads; they are mostly black brown with three white spots on the head. Learn more about the Harlequin duck.




Osprey at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge | Mark Bartosik
Osprey at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge | Mark Bartosik

Also known as the “fish hawk,” osprey feed exclusively on live fish. They hunt by soaring over water, periodically hovering on beating wings to scan for surface schooling or spawning fish. Breezy days allow them to stay aloft as they search for fish, but cloudy conditions with rippled water make the process much more challenging for the predatory bird. When prey is spotted, the osprey folds in its wings, descends swiftly, and plunges feet first into the water, sometimes submerging completely. Another technique the bird uses is to shallow scoop the fish at the surface with the feet and the bird hardly gets wet. Click here to see both methods in action. Similar to Bald Eagles, the osprey was once near extinction due to the presence of DDT. Thankfully their numbers have significantly increased, and they are a common sight. Learn more about the osprey.


Peregrine falcon


Peregrine Falcon at Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge | Henry Detwiler
Peregrine Falcon at Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge | Henry Detwiler

The peregrine falcon is a big success story. It has officially been removed from the Endangered Species list due to successful recovery efforts. Its name originates from the Latin word “peregrinus” which means “foreigner” or “traveler.” This symbol of America’s recovering threatened and endangered species has long been known for its speed, grace, and aerial skills. In the mid 1960s, the species almost completely disappeared from the eastern U.S. and were reduced by 80 or 90 percent in the west. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists at Patuxent Wildlife Refuge Center in Maryland began to investigate the cause of the decline and found that, like other birds of prey, peregrine falcons suffered from DDT interfering with eggshell formation. This resulted in shells so thin that they often broke during incubation or failed to hatch. In 1970 the American and Arctic peregrine falcon subspecies were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969. Thanks to a cooperative effort between the Service, state wildlife agencies, and many other private partners, the bird has officially recovered. Learn more about this iconic species.


Atlantic puffin


Atlantic puffins at Maine Coastal Islands NWR | USFWS
Atlantic puffins at Maine Coastal Islands NWR | USFWS

Affectionately known as the “sea parrot,” Atlantic puffins live most of their lives at sea. They use their wings to help them swim stroking in a flying motion. Atlantic puffins are also surprisingly good flyers reaching up to 55 miles per hour. Interestingly, Atlantic puffins can live to be more than 30 years old, and don’t breed until they are three to six. Unfortunately, heavy exploitation of puffin eggs in the 1800s and early 1900s lead to rapid population declines. Thankfully, a colony restoration and management program run by the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the National Audubon Society successfully restored nesting colonies on several Refuge and state management islands in Maine. Learn more about the Atlantic puffin and the recovery efforts.


Northern bobwhite


Northern bobwhite | Steve Maslowski, USFWS
Northern bobwhite | Steve Maslowski, USFWS

Characterized by it’s whistled “bob-white” call, the Northern bobwhite has long been an iconic species in the Eastern countryside. Although it is easy to hear, this bird is much harder to spot, with its plumage offering excellent camouflage. Due to its history as a game species, the Northern bobwhite is one of the most intensively studied bird species in the world. They are divided into 22 subspecies such as the masked bobwhite, Rufous-bellied bobwhite, and the black-headed bobwhite. They were once thought to be monogamous, but it turns out that both male and females bobwhites have multiple partners in one season. Learn more about the Northern bobwhite.


Greater sage-grouse


Sage Grouse | FWS
Sage Grouse | FWS

As its name suggests, the greater sage-grouse inhabits sagebrush plains, as well as foothills and mountain valleys. These ground-dwelling birds live where sagebrush is prevalent, in 11 western states and parts of Canada. The number of sage-grouse has declined significantly in the past century as their sagebrush habitat has been fragmented and destroyed. The sage-grouse is sometimes referred to as a sage chicken, sage cock or sage hen because of its resemblance to the domestic chicken. Females are brown, black and white, which helps camouflage them from predators. Males are more colorful, with feathers around their neck and large yellow air sacs on their breast that inflate during mating displays. Their mating displays are quite a sight to see – see their mating display. Learn more about the Greater Sage-Grouse.


Wild turkey


A pair of wild turkeys on Necedah National Wildlife Refuge | Dennis Connell
A pair of wild turkeys on Necedah National Wildlife Refuge | Dennis Connell

Beyond being the icon for Fall and Thanksgiving, the wild turkey is quite an interesting bird. For instance, turkeys have 5,000 to 6,000 feathers, and turkey droppings give information about the birds sex and age. Also, the males aren’t the only ones to do a mating dance; sometimes the females strut their stuff too. They’re also faster than you might expect reaching more than 12 miles per hour. Did you know it was also in the running to become our national bird? Ben Franklin called the wild turkey a “bird of courage.” Learn more about this wild bird.


Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2015/05/40-species-in-the-refuge-system-part-3/

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