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The salt water in this part of the world doesn’t freeze like it used to – as a matter of fact it rarely freezes any more at all. The days of icy blocks lifted and pushed ashore by the flood tides are pretty much over. If the sea water freezes it isn’t for a long period – I sort of miss the look and primal feel of those days, but I don’t really miss the weather. The larger fresh water ponds out here on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, often stay unfrozen through the winter as well. That means that many of the sea, bay, and puddle ducks, geese, and swans can winter here rather easily. Cape Cod has about 365 fresh water ponds, many of which are shallow and have vegetation which dabblers can reach through the winter; some of these may freeze off and on during the winter. Other ponds and lakes are a bit deeper but have copious numbers of fresh water mussels and small fishes in place of the vegetation of the shallow lakes. The shallow salt waters inside Cape Cod Bay and the shallows of Nantucket Sound also provide mussels, clams, crabs, and other food items that the sea and bay ducks favor. We will look at the sea and bay ducks in another post, here we will see some of the freshwater ducks, as well as a goose or two and our only swan.
Ducks and geese feed in a variety of ways and in a variety of habitats. Geese tend to graze; they like large lawns, golf courses, and planted roadside verges. Some ducks will dabble near the surface for vegetation and easy to catch critters by tipping tail-up and head down. Other ducks will dive and chase down aquatic life forms underwater like feathered otters. The Mergansers are all divers and chasers and the Swans are all long-necked dabblers. Here are a few of our waterfowl.
The ubiquitous and now non-migratory Canada geese are often joined by an interloper. We get the very occasional Pink-footed Goose and the more usual Snow Goose (SNGO). These two are Snow Geese as you may have guessed. These are not uncommon in the US and Canada but here on the northeastern shore we don’t see them very often as they tend to migrate inland a bit and fly over us, usually well to the west, as they head to their southern wintering grounds.
Like many, perhaps most, white birds, they have black-tipped feathers in the wing. The dark pigment (melanin) helps keep the wing tips from wearing and fraying. It is a characteristic seen in pelicans, ibis, and some other long-distance migrants that are white. Like our Screech Owl which has a red and a gray phase; the Snow Goose has a “blue” and a white morph. The white type is by far the most common.
The Mallard is perhaps the most common duck of North America. Many, perhaps most, have domestic DNA somewhere in their lineage and rarely are they thought to be much more than very successful and capable domestic escapees. They have been “farmed” for hundreds of years. The males are characterized by the iridescent green head and the curling feather above the tail. Many of the Mallard group are migrants and they are well represented in the prairies and farms of the central USA.
The female is quite cryptic and blends in to her surroundings as she incubates the clutch of eggs in a nest which is located on the ground. In ducks many of the females are rather plain and designed for camouflage and partner with a more gaudy, flashy, and colorful male.
The Northern Shoveler is named for its broad spatulate bill. They tip up and eat vegetation and whatever is attached to it. This is a young male and it will become more flashy as the whites and blues become stronger,. This is another central US duck that we look forward to seeing annually in small numbers here in the northeast.
The Ring-necked Duck must have been named in a museum. The neck does have a ring if you hold it just right in a canted light stream. It looks like it should be called the Ring-billed Duck as the pattern on the bill can be seen at great distances. It is a diving duck that gets most of its food from seeds and green growth but about a quarter of the diet is animal matter taken during shallow dives. A flock of RNDU will stay tightly together on the water and will dive so often that they are quite hard to count accurately. This is a very attractive and common winter duck here in New England on the freshwater ponds.
An elegantly constructed duck is the Pintail. The long neck and sleek body with a “pin” tail makes it more like a piece of art than a duck. This is another duck that tips up and dabbles in shallow water. When central America was great prairies there were thousands of prairie potholes where water stood and countless millions of ducks bred. Those days, and those places, are pretty much gone – turned to Soy Bean and Corn fields – but enough habitat exists and is managed for waterfowl so that the Shovelers, Pintails, teal, and mallards are still quite common.
The Green-winged Teal is a small duck with a rather brown camouflaged female. These two are both females or perhaps young males, but the white undertail feathers make me lean toward female. The males are flashy in breeding plumage but here in the northeast they are not very common and rather skittish. I looked for a good image of the males but find that the best teal photos I have are from far far away – maybe I’ll get a male Green-winged Teal to pose some day and I’ll share it immediately. Teal are in the same Genus as many other ducks ( Anas) but the name “teal” usually refers to a small enclave of smaller ducks (here in the US = Green-winged, Blue-winged, and Cinnamon).
The Gadwall (GADW) seems to be rather dull at any significant distance but up close the feathering is a tapestry. The vermiculations and soft patterns are exquisite. The Gadwall population is stable right now and management of wetlands in the central parts of the country has helped. The population seen in the eastern part of the country has been increasing for the past couple decades. Incidentally the word “vermiculation” sounds like a rather regal descriptor but really refers to something that looks like the track a worm makes.
Geese, duck, swans, and mergansers are the major groups of waterfowl. In the American northeast we really don’t have a native swan. We now have the very large Mute Swan (MUSW). It was brought in to the US a couple centuries ago to lend a regal British air to private estates and ponds on the town common land. They are well established in the northeast and around much of the land around the Great Lakes. It can dominate a pond and alter the breeding opportunities for native species. Over the years many states have tried to remove the Mute Swan or at least control it breeding. At the moment the population is widespread but not spreading rapidly. As of 2021 I know of no states that are controlling the swan population.
There are three species of merganser in the USA; mergansers are diving predators of both fresh and salt water. The Hooded Merganser shown here is a small attractive duck that we see in the winter; often in rather large numbers. They dive and chase aquatic life forms of all sizes and shapes. In the spring they head north to breed in tree cavities in the Canadian woodlands and ponds. They also breed in the US in woodlands and often in forests at some elevation. They are one of the duck that doesn’t use the prairies of the country but is tied to forests and trees. Mergansers have a narrow bill with serrations along its length; the better to hold a squirming fish or elver or tadpole.