Fly like an eagle?

One cold February afternoon I stopped by the Phil and Marilyn Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve off of Woodbridge Road west of I-5 and Lodi looking for a weather photo and perhaps to get some shots of the elegant and stately birds that winter in the reserve.

When I got there was a single person peering through a pair of binocular. The cranes hadn’t flown back the reserve for the evening but there were plenty of other birds for her to see. I got a shot of her silhouetted against storm clouds billowing on the horizon.

She gave her name as Meghan Bishop from the East Bay town of Moraga and identified herself as a wildlife biologist. She was in the valley studying vernal pools and decided to stop at the reserve to do a little bird watching before heading home.

Among the waterfowl at the reserve were some American coots swimming in the shallow waters of the flooded fields. When Bishop told me what her occupation was, who better to ask a wildlife question that has been nagging me for years: “Do coots fly?”

Coots are duck-sized waterfowl with dark grey bodies, black necks and small, snowy white beaks and I’ve photographed many of them over the years. I’ve seen them swim in groups (occasionally alone) on bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, ponds, etc., or even waddle along a shoreline but I’ve never seen one fly.

The closest I’ve seen them come to flying is when they skitter across the water with their thick-toed feet and stubby little wings working furiously as if to take off. But whenever it seemed as if they were going actually to lift off the water, in unison, they would power down and then glide across the surface until they slowed back down to a leisurely paddle.

And while I’ve never seen great herds of coots thundering across the grassland or pastures in the Delta, neither have I seen flocks of them flying overhead. So I assumed that coots might be flightless birds like penguins, emus or kiwis.

So I posed the question to Bishop. She gave me a curious look and then said that, yes, they do indeed fly. I then asked her why I haven’t seen any do so. She suggested that maybe if something like a dog was chasing them then they would take to the sky. So coots, like most other birds, fly, perhaps as gracefully as eagles. Apparently they just need the proper motivation to do so.

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