Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 8, 2008

Ducks in a Row

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:21 pm

 When ducks of a feather gather together, it is certainly a sight to behold.  Whether the gathering is a gaggle of geese, a bolt of canvasbacks, or a quack of mallards the overall effect is a treat for the eyes and ears.  I say this because of the winter swarms of waterfowl that are presently collecting about the immediate area.  They are spilling out from the waters of Lake Erie onto the shoreline ice and adjacent corn fields.

  The big waters of the Detroit River and Lac Erie du Chat (that’s the early name of Lake Erie, by the way) are teeming with rafts of Canvasbacks (see here).  It has been stated that nearly 10% of the North American population of these diving ducks winter in our regional waters – a figure I can neither affirm nor deny, but find impressive. This view was taken just off the eastern side of Grosse Ile, the nine mile island that is fetched up smack in the middle of the lower river. The birds were part of a flock of a thousand actively feeding around the edge of the ice shelf not twenty feet from shore.

  Cans, as they are affectionately known by those unwilling or unable to pronounce multi-syllabic words, are chunky medium-sized ducks with impressive royal snoots. Their black beaks are large and sloping like a gentle ski hill that continues the angle of the forehead all the way to the tip. These birds are mostly males with red eyes, deep chestnut-colored heads, black breast and rump, and white midbody. Often called “Bullnecks” by those who refuse to relegate such a magnificent little beast to a one syllable name, male Canvasbacks indeed appear to have a robust neck when viewed head on. A single female bird, identifiable by her dingier white midbody and brownish dark parts, was resting on the ice (see here near the center) with her head tucked back coyly between her shoulders. For the time I watched them, the “guys” were going at it in the celery beds below.

  As divers, they propelled themselves under the surface with a quick porpoise move and slipped into the current.  I assume that after a few seconds, they would return to the surface slurping a water celery leaf noodle or crunching a zebra mussel. I say assume, because it was impossible to track the motion of any one bird due to the boiling activity of the flock. There was always one diving and one returning, one swimming and one preening at any given time. A few were unsurely attempting to walk over the ice on ill balanced feet. All of this activity was done in silence on the fowl’s part.  The water was continually squishing and splashing like agitated bathwater, but the ducks were mum.

  In stark contrast to this silent aggregation, or “group” if you are syllabically challenged, a north Monroe County corn field was the scene of a cacophonous gathering (see here) a few days later. Here hundreds of Mallard Ducks and Canada Geese were grain-gathering far from the waterfront. These birds were talking all the time. The Canadas were, of course, honking in mock alarm, but not at my presence. I don’t like these critters very much and try not to call attention to them, but I felt obligated to pass on this particular scene because of the swan in the center.  To say that the Tundra Swan stood out like a sore thumb in such company would be an understatement. These birds (which I do like a whole lot) are foragers in their own right who frequent our grain fields in late winter and spend the nights out on the open water.  This swan didn’t say or do much. I imagine he felt somewhat intimidated by the noisy hordes about him. Perhaps he was wondering where all of “his kind” were – like a person discovering that he was at the wrong party pensively standing by the peanut bowl planning a graceful exit.

  Meanwhile, at the other end of the field, a bunch’o mallards were standing in the rows (see here). This was another loud gang of corn feeders that quacked and chortled constantly. They were a nervous bunch which retreated back into the stubble with every passing car.  My stationary car really set them on edge and their necks were craning nearly to goose length to get a fix on my position.  You’ll note that there appears to be an equal mix of hens and drakes – the drakes being the green-headed ones. Their bright orange feet stand out like beacons against the snowy backdrop. Although my photo does not show them very well, there were a number of Black Ducks in the group as well.  Look for the really dark birds with red legs and you’ll see why they are called black ducks.

  This past week I went past the same cornfield and saw that the waterfowl party spot was now populated with a teeming school of blackbirds- mostly red-wing blackbirds. Their arrival signals the eminent loss of our temporary population of canvasbacks and tundra swans as they return to their spring breeding grounds.  The mallards will begin to pair up and distribute out. Unfortunately, the geese aren’t going anywhere.

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