Signs of Spring!

Red-winged blackbirds arriving, snow geese on their way, a few migrating ducks finding ice-free water…..it’s beginning to look and sound like spring. I must weigh in on the annual ritual of reporting first arrivals: my story revolves around a couple of tiny little ducks that happened to visit (Feb. 29) while on their way to Canada.

The Bufflehead is one of our smallest ducks, one of many species in the group referred to as “diving ducks”.

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The duck on the right is just emerging from a dive

When I spotted this pair of females they were actively feeding, and therefore approachable. Their dive is explosive, quick, without ceremony. They search the bottom for aquatic invertebrates, disappearing for 8 to 10 seconds, then pop back up to the surface. Despite watching this routine for half an hour, both the dive and the return always caught me a little off guard!

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A simultaneous dive – maybe a race to the bottom!

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The buffleheads fed almost nonstop, rhythmically bobbing, plopping and popping in the small patch of open water. Occasionally they paused – briefly – to groom and rest.

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Later this spring these adorable little ducks will be in Canada, searching for dead or dying trees with cavities excavated by woodpeckers – habitat suitable for nesting and raising a brood. I wish them well!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Ring-necked Ducks in Early Spring

Ring-necked Ducks are common in late winter and during migration. I often see them in small flocks on wooded lakes and reservoirs, resting or diving for submerged plant and animal life. Unlike most other diving ducks, small, shallow ponds and wetlands are also suitable habitat. Yesterday I watched two pairs loafing and feeding on a farm pond that was less than 150 feet across.

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The male is not particularly colorful. However, the smooth, glossy appearance, sharp lines, and contrasting black, white and pale gray plumage are quite appealing and very useful for field identification.

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All photos by NB Hunter

Quality Time with Mergansers

I was scouting cut corn fields on a tip that migrating snow geese were stopping to feed and rest. It was 19 degrees with a 20 mph wind, so road hunting from the warmth of my truck seemed to be the best strategy.

I didn’t see snow geese but spotted a pair of hooded mergansers on a tiny, roadside  pond. Hooded mergansers are small, fast-flying diving ducks that are wary and intolerant  of disturbance. The pond, probably installed for erosion control, was no more than 50 feet across and rimmed with small trees and brush. Most small ponds in the area were frozen, so I assumed it was spring fed and healthy. Somehow I managed to ease the truck off the road and reach a vantage point without pushing the mergansers off the water. After a few minutes they settled and resumed normal activity, treating me to an hour-long demonstration on the feeding behavior of a pair of hooded mergansers.

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Hooded mergansers; the male has just surfaced from a feeding dive.

In the spring, small ponds, swamps and rivers in wooded areas are preferred habitat for breeding pairs of hooded mergansers. Trees are an important habitat feature because this species, like wood ducks, nests in tree cavities. The recommended dimensions for an artificial nest box shed light on the nature of these cavities: roughly 24” high x 11” wide, with an oval-shaped  entrance hole about 4” wide x 3” high.

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Brilliant black and white markings and chestnut flanks distinguish the colorful male. The white crest on his head, which he expands when courting, is an outstanding identifying feature for a bird on the water, even at long distances.

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The female is drab but has the typical merganser silhouette: a distinct crest and long, slender bill.

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Hen that just popped to the surface after a feeding dive

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Mergansers are diving ducks. Strong, fast swimmers with long, slender, serrated bills, they are well-adapted for underwater fishing. The dive is abrupt and fast, lasting 5 to 10 seconds. 

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While submerged, they search for small fish, frogs, crayfish and small aquatic organisms. In this case, aquatic vegetation on their bills and a worm-like invertebrate (?) caught by the hen suggest that they were foraging at the bottom of the pond.

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When feeding, the pair was usually in close proximity to one another. I’m not sure why the hen became aggressive toward the drake, but I believe she was being a bit greedy over the subsurface food supply rather than fending off an unwanted suitor.

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The weather failed to improve and the mergansers drifted toward cover near shore. I decided to let them be, grateful for the unexpected quality time and opportunity to observe the behavior of a pair of elusive wild ducks.

All photos by NB Hunter

 

Ice and Open Water

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A muskrat on ice, eating and grooming after foraging in the shallow, open water below

A couple of windy days with temperatures near zero have me thinking about the weeks ahead. The days are noticeably longer and the sun higher in the sky, meaning the open, ice-free zones on local lakes, ponds and streams will be expanding and full of life. Many of these special places are very accessible, near walking trails and secondary roads, providing great opportunities to observe and photograph the retreat of winter.

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Geese battling for rights to open water; a small flock of new arrivals was charged and driven back to the water’s edge

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A pair of mallards

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Mute swan at rest on ice

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One of my favorite places to be in at this time of year is a ground blind just beyond the bank of a stream bordering a managed wetland. On this occasion, the water was free of ice, except for a narrow strip along shore, the sky was bright, and the place was alive with geese overhead and ducks on the water. Recent sightings of bald eagles added to my excitement and anticipation. Eventually, I spotted two mergansers, diving and feeding along, advancing upstream in my direction. I was preparing for a photo of them on the open water when, suddenly and unexpectedly, a submarine-like form appeared under the ice in front of me. Mesmerized, I just stared into the water, forgetting about the camera in front of my nose, as one of the mergansers fed along under the ice, then burst to the surface right in front of me! I failed to get that perfect action shot, the one I really wanted, but this photo keeps the memory alive!

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Common merganser

All photos by NB Hunter, 2012