Connecting you with nature
In many parts of North America that experience cold winters, the wildlife landscape changes particularly when it comes to birdlife. Many birds migrate to and reside in warmer climates during fall and winter. However, depending on your location, ducks are one kind of bird that may be seen in greater numbers during winter. I live in an area that’s surrounded by large water bodies, including the Potomac River, Chesapeake Bay, and other lakes and ponds and that provide excellent habitat for ducks. My area is in the “Atlantic Flyway,” a major north-south flyway for migratory birds in North America. The route generally starts in Greenland, and follows the Atlantic coast of Canada and the United States, all the way south to the tropical areas of South America and the Caribbean. Every year migratory birds travel up and down this route to their overwintering sites, breeding grounds, and in search of food and protection as the seasons change. Audubon describes the Atlantic Flyway as encompassing “some of the hemisphere’s most productive ecosystems, including forests, beaches, and coastal wetland.” Just like small birds and raptors, many ducks migrate along the Atlantic Flyway and many species overwinter in my area. In today’s blog I’m spotlighting a few of the beautiful and unusual ducks that I’ve photographed.
Ducks are underappreciated birds. If you search #ducks on Instagram you’ll see as many photos of ducks shot by hunters, duck jewelry, duck decoys, or commonly seen ducks, like mallards, rather than a representation of the beautiful variety of duck species out there. Of course, Instagram is far from the gold standard in wildlife information. In addition, ducks are not necessarily easy to locate or photograph. With a license, most ducks can be hunted during designated seasons, so with a few exceptions, ducks have learned to avoid humans.
There are three things that I find most interesting about ducks: 1) the distances some of them migrate; 2) their nesting behavior; and 3) the diversity of colors and patterns among ducks – and primarily male ducks -- because many female ducks are varying shades of brown.
This Long-tailed duck (non-breeding male) I photographed in February (2021), breeds in the Artic and is spending at least some part of the winter in the relative warmth of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. In the fall they leave their Artic homes and migrate west or east. The population that migrates eastward, overwinters in large water bodies like the Great Lakes and the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay. I imagine he thought that the 30-degree day I took this photograph was “balmy.” Long-tailed ducks, which get their name from the male’s long tail feathers, are considered “sea ducks” because when they’re seen, it’s usually out on open ocean or large lakes. Long-tailed ducks are often the most abundant bird in the high Arctic and are capable of diving as deep as 200 feet (61 m).
The Surf Scoter is another sea duck that I photographed in the Chesapeake Bay this winter. The Surf Scoter has very interesting colors and patterns on their beak. The first time I photographed a Surf Scoter I didn’t know what I was looking at. I was standing on a beach in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, when I observed a couple of birds floating way out on the water. I first thought I was seeing pelicans or seagulls. It wasn’t until I looked through my lens, and then did some follow-up research, that I realized I was seeing a Surf Scoter. That experience was a good reminder to always look through binoculars, a scope, or your telephoto lens because what looks like something “common” off in the distance may not be. Surf Scoter’s breed in far northern Canada and Alaska and then migrate and winter all along the US Atlantic coast, and other warmer locations.
One of the most interesting things I first learned about ducks is that some species nest in tree cavities. Wood ducks, buffleheads, common mergansers, and hooded mergansers, and a few other species nest in tree cavities. Nesting in tree cavities offers protection from the elements and predators. However, the ducks don’t create their tree cavity nests, rather, they’ll occupy cavities created by other birds, including woodpeckers, and cavities that have naturally evolved. These same duck species that nest in tree cavities may also use human-built nest boxes placed along the edge of a water body or wetland. You might ask – how old are ducklings when they fly out of these tree cavity nests? In the case of wood ducklings and merganser ducklings they leave the nest 24 hours after hatching. Moreover, there’s no flying from the nest – they jump out -- and if all goes well with the jump, they follow their mother (hen) as she guides them to the nearest water. Just after hatching, a hen may lead her ducklings up to a half mile or more over land to find a suitable water source for swimming and feeding. As you might imaging jumping out of the nest and then traveling over land when you’re a day old means not all ducklings survive. Tree cavity nests can be quite high off the ground and may not be very close to water. With that said, if your timing is right and you’ve spotted a duck nest in a tree cavity, you might capture some stunning photographs of ducklings making their first entrance into the world. A couple of my favorite images of wood ducks, common and hooded mergansers and bufflehead ducks, all tree cavity nesters, follow.
Other duck species, including the canvasbacks, ruddy ducks, greater scaup, ring-necked ducks, redheads, and occasionally mallards, make their nests over water on “rafts” of floating vegetation. This strategy provides a measure of protection from land-based predators, like racoons, coyotes, foxes, or and even cats and dogs. A little spotlight on the Canvasback -- which is sometimes called "King Can" because of their aristocratic profile, but also because they’re the largest species of diving duck in North America. Canvasbacks are one of the fastest flying ducks in North America, capable of flying at least 60 mph (96 km/h). Like many ducks, Canvasbacks nest in very northern parts of the US and Canada, and migrate to warmer locations for winter. I live near one of the three US regions that the Canvasback overwinters – the Chesapeake Bay – and where the fetching chap’s photo below was taken last week. ️The two other US regions where Canvasbacks are known to overwinter is along the Pacific coast and in coastal Louisiana. Canvasbacks are heavily dependent on healthy watersheds and wetlands because they spend nearly all their time in the water. I love this quote about the King Can --- “May we always have the opportunity to meet these legendary birds up close and personal! This shall be so only if we look after the wetlands that sustain canvasbacks across our continent. Like a flight of cans arrowing through an autumn sky, our course is clear. Let us not fail the birds, or future generations, in our resolve.” Images of the beautiful canvasback duck, greater scaup and lesser scaup follow.
From a distance if you see a Northern Shoveler you might mistake it for a Mallard because they both have beautiful green heads. But a close look will reveal a big difference which is the shape and length of a Shoveler’s beak -- that’s where they get their name. Northern Shoveler’s have a large spoon-shaped bill with comb-like projections on the sides that they use to forage and filter out tiny crustaceans and seeds from the water. Northern Shovelers are ground nesting ducks as are Northern Pintails and Mallards.
Northern Pintails are considered to be widespread, though I’ve never seen them in large numbers, and each one I photograph is special. During their summer breeding season, the Pintail ranges from Alaska through Canada and into the Great Plains of the US. During the winter, it may be found in southern Alaska, nearly all regions of the interior US and all along the Atlantic Coast. This Pintail was photographed in a Virginia wetland during winter. Waterfowl management experts and advocates have concerns about declining Pintail populations. One factor in their decline is the destruction or alteration of the Prairie Pothole Region. This Region includes five upper Midwest US states (Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota and Montana), and three Canadian provinces (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta). Increased agricultural and commercial development in the Prairie Pothole Region has degraded or destroyed breeding and feeding grounds for Northern Pintails and many other North America migratory waterfowl. The US Great Plains and Prairie Pothole Region are No. 1 on the 25 most important and threatened waterfowl habitats on the continent.
Images of the Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Mallards follow.
Life is not easy as a duck. Those that make it are true survivors. Why is duck life hard? First, in most cases, within 24 hours of making their appearance into the world, ducks are essentially on their own, yet they can’t fly and are nearly defenseless. Second, humans can still legally hunt ducks, duck hunting is still incentivized as a conservation tool, and duck hunting remains somewhat popular. Financial support from duck and goose hunters has been a foundation of wetlands conservation ever since the federal duck stamp was first issued in 1934. Waterfowlers have contributed billions of dollars to wildlife management by purchasing duck stamps and hunting licenses, paying excise taxes on sporting arms and ammunition through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson Act). And, a third reason duck life is hard is that humans have gotten into some bad, even if well-intentioned behavior, of feeding ducks unhealthy things like bread. Much has been written about this, leading some to call bread “the ultimate junk food for birds”. Bread is NOT for birds. See below for more information. Last, and not least, healthy wetlands, marshes and water, the natural habitats of ducks, are constantly under pressure from human development, encroachment, and pollution.
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