As I mentioned in my previous post, I had planned writing a post about ducks, and in the last week, I’ve been thinking about how I wanted to go about writing it. One could easily start by breaking them out along genus – like Anas, Aythya, etc, and discussing the difference between dabbling and diving ducks, and whether you find certain birds on freshwater, salt-water, brackish or a combination. But frankly, as much as I am interested in the ornithological study of birds, when it comes to writing about them – I find I tend more to wax poetic about how they appeal to the senses we use most often to perceive our world – how they look & how they sound. (I wouldn’t expect too many posts from me about how they feel, smell or taste.) Therefore, I am throwing any real likeness of order to the winds and plan to simply babble about some of these birds as they come to mind, show some photos, and try not to bore you all to death… hopefully, I have not bitten off more than I can chew here. I have a feeling that my posts as a beat writer will continue to tout the beauty of the avian world, rather than any semblance educational discourse. I hope that my “bosses” at 10,000 Birds won’t mind too much.
When people (including many birders) think about colorful birds,their thoughts likely go to jays and cardinals, tanagers and orioles, warblers and the like. But as the days get shorter (and often grayer) in New England, you can usually count on ducks to help dissipate the gloom as they arrive in larger numbers and varieties. On ponds, lakes, rivers, salt pans and the ocean there is an artist’s palette of avian life in late Autumn.
The first duck that ‘non-birders’ usually think of when they year that word (OK, aside from Daffy and Donald) is probably the Mallard – and with good reason. Not only are they prolific and easily found, they are really quite a eye-catching bird – the brilliant green head of the drake is in itself a jewel of nature. I think that as such a common bird, many birders quickly dismiss and look past them in search of less common waterfowl. But honestly, if they were not so common, I have no doubt that every birder would be “oohing” and “aahing” over how beautiful they are – so the next time you see a drake in nice sunlight, I’d like you to stop a moment and appreciate the beauty of one of our most common ducks.
Mother Nature didn’t stop there with the waterfowl though, and I think that it’s a shame that many people do not know the joys of all the other species in this family. For instance… do anyone beyond birders (and hunters) appreciate that almost same ‘Mallard green’ as a mask contrasted against the creamy yellow of an American Wigeon or against the warm chestnut of a Green-winged Teal?
And speaking of chestnut, every year there is a local reservoir where I go to get my fix on one of my favorites – Canvasbacks.
It’s a very popular area with many joggers, dog-walkers, etc – and I always enjoy it when somebody asks what I am looking at or photographing because it gives me the chance to show folks that there are more than just mallards on the water. They are usually quite impressed with the elegant lines, and bright red eye of the Canvasback, or the interesting blue and white bill on the purplish heads of the many Ring-necked Ducks also in the vicinity.
Not far, on a smaller pond near a golf course, there are usually a half dozen or more Hooded Mergansers – a bird that always seems to produce a startled surprise from somebody looking at one for the first time. It’s not just the color here, but also the shape of that head when a male “hoodie” is displaying.
If you want a true example of an eye-watering color combination in nature, look no further than a drake Wood Duck – he almost covers almost the entire spectrum on his own!
Perhaps less bright in their coloration, but simply beautiful in their own right are a few other ducks that are often found this time of the year – Northern Pintail – elegant birds with a chocolate brown head, a long graceful neck, and the tail for which they are named.
And usually on the same body of water, there will be Gadwall in their velvet gray plumage, signature black rumps, block heads, and just of touch of orange on their scapulars.
There are certainly more subtle colors as well – the Black duck seems plain as can be until it flashes that royal blue speculum (wing patch). Greater and Lesser Scaup seem to be a study in black-and-white (unless the sun hits them at just the right angle, where you could pick up a greenish or purplish hue in their dark heads). Many of the ducks that you find on the ocean are also mostly black-and-white. The Common Eider is a familiar coastal duck in New England throughout most of the year, and at a distance one rarely picks up any more than a stark contrast on the water – but closer inspection, especially in the autumn will often reveal a delicate pink wash on the breast and pale mossy green on the back of the head. While looking through rafts of eider, if you are lucky, occasionally you might find a rare gem among them – King Eiders are far from common, but a few usually are found each year in New England. All three scoters are also regularly seen, large dark birds on the water, and identifying them at a distance is a study of noting where you see (or don’t see at all) white on the birds. Again, closer views will show a little bit of color – delicate yellowish-pink on the White-winged Scoter’s bill, a bright yellow knob on the Black Scoter, and multiple colors on the Surf Scoter’s bill.
And speaking of ducks that seem monochrome at a distance, I simply cannot write any more without mentioning another of my favorites – the Long-tailed Duck (or as most of my friends call it – “the bird formerly known as Oldsquaw”) While flying at a distance, one might be forgiven for thinking they’ve spotted an alcid, when you have the opportunity to see them closer up the bubble-gum pink on their bill and almost dalmatian-like plumage really make for quite a beautiful bird.
And while I have already passed the point of rambling, I can’t not mention one last species (even though as I write this I keep thinking of other species I have not even mentioned, and am debating lengthening this ramble to include them…) It makes me wonder how many “favorite” representative of a species one can have as I was about to use that adjective again, but it’s hard not to use with a bird like a Harlequin Duck.
Every year I look forward to the time when rafts of “harlies” return to a few reliable coastal spots and plan some days entirely around finding them. It’s hard for me to even really determine a dominant color when describing this hardy little bird – gunmetal blue-gray, burnt umber, with slashes and spatters of white is what comes to my mind. In the winter, rafts of these ducks are sometimes found near rocks shores where you would almost swear that they are being dashed on the rocks by the pounding ocean waves, but they always pop to the surface again like corks in a wetsuit.
As to all those other species I alluded to above… why not cheerfully go on about the other two smart-looking species of mergansers, or touch upon the glossy luster of a Bufflehead, the cool bill of a Northern Shoveler, or the bright rufous head, yellow eye and pale gray back of the Redhead? Well, frankly, I could go on and on about them and more, but at this point, I have simply run out of writing steam… but that doesn’t mean that the conversation has to end. Fill that “Share your thoughts” box below and tell us about your favorite ducks.
(Oh… and I can’t wait to see how many of you caught a little ‘easter egg’ I put into this post – I’m sure it won’t be long until I hear about it…)