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.

Geese, Geese and More Geese: Goslings!

Canada Geese mate for life and, for the pairs that nested successfully, the 25 – 28 day incubation period is over. There are downy little goslings everywhere. Within a couple of days of hatching they can walk, swim, dabble and eat. Amazing. On land, they motor along, tripping, stumbling, stabbing and pecking like little wind-up toys. The parents are never far away and guard the kids aggressively.

Goose family; shallow, swampy headwaters of Eaton Brook Reservoir; 1 of 4

Goose family; on full alert, with aggressive posturing, due to my presence; swampy headwaters of Leland Pond; 1 of 2

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

The Mute Swan

Sometimes it’s important to just sit and observe nature with no particular purpose. A familiar bird, the local Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), joined me today in that pursuit. I often photograph this individual in winter or early spring (“Ice and Open Water”, 2/18/13), but not at this time of year. I suppose that’s because there are hundreds of options in spring, and an exotic (European origin), semi-tame species isn’t supposed to be a high priority for a nature enthusiast. That said, a Mute Swan hanging out in a natural wetland setting is a beautiful scene worthy of capture.

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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

Evening Light

It’s spring but the cold, snowy weather suggests otherwise. Sunlight is a precious commodity right now. When it looked like evening light might work its way through occasional gaps in the cloud cover, I decided to battle cabin fever with a “scenic drive” on secondary roads near home, hoping to capture something special. There were plenty of surprises and ephemeral moments. These were my favorites.

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Windmill in evening light

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Canada Geese

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Great Blue Heron

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Ring-necked Ducks (1 of 2)

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Common Merganser, male

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Common Merganser, female

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