I don’t see enough American Coots. That’s a comment you probably don’t hear much in regular conversation — or even from birdy people. The coot is not a bird that inspires viewing frenzies the way an owl does. I’ve heard some people call coots “trash birds” — a pejorative I never use for any animal, but a term that 10,000 Birds describes this way:
“Trash bird” is controversial birding lingo for any species that is so ubiquitous in a location that it surpasses unremarkable and becomes truly irritating.
Recently, I was at an urban wildlife area where a bustling raft of several hundred coots inspired barely a nod, while photographers on the boardwalk trained their lenses on few mergansers feeding in the shallows … like this female Hooded Merganser.
Putting aside (if I can) our own species’ arrogance — that we actually have the audacity to rate any other animal as “trash” — I find American Coots to be fascinating in more ways than one. I know there are other photographers who share my affection and respect.
First, there are the magnificent and giant lobed toes. Photographer Mia McPherson captured those coot toes here, all frosty from a winter’s romp.
Then there are the behavior displays and territorial arguments, something I’ve been able to photograph (close up) just one time, on Mountain Lake in San Francisco’s Presidio. I was new to Coot behavior and the signs leading up to a fight, so this sudden tussle took me by surprise. I snapped just two frames before they split off.
Last year, I wrote about the coots’ flocking cohesion as they marched, single file, in and out of the primordial soup of Lake Union in Seattle.
Then last week, Hugh and I were lucky to come upon a group of coots off the shoreline at Union Bay Natural Area in Seattle, bobbing for greens like a flock of fishing floats.
“The filtering beak allows the Coot to filter out the gulps of water and mud it takes in while also taking up vegetation or small fish or insects. Instead of completely diving into the water the Coots may also act like ducks and simply dip their head in and grab a beak full of water and various other things.”
~ From the American Coot website
This video shows just a hint of that behavior. I was shooting at full extension here, to show the foraging behavior and the setting of the birds against the urban environment of the 520 floating bridge. They surprised me with a sudden flush toward the shore.
This mass movement brought the coots within easy reach of my lens for 20 minutes or so. They’d collect, huddle and preen on this mud peninsula. Then, on some cootish signal, they’d head out again to forage before either flapping or swimming back toward us and to their refuge again. These photos show snippets from our interlude with the Lake Washington coots. They were shot just a bit earlier but at the same location where I photographed the heron that same day.
These two found their own private reed paradise, adjacent to the rest.
This photo shows part of the flock heading back out to forage.
Here you can see how the light that day favored this one peninsula … where the coots just happened to congregate.
They’d leave the island one by one, until the last coot standing couldn’t stand the solitude. He or she would dive in and the whole flock would repeat the same routine several times over until they finally paddled out into the middle of the lake, and out of camera’s reach.