Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 14, 2011

Them is Purdy Ducks

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:31 pm

There are only two times a year to get all your ducks in a row in S.E. Michigan. Although there are plenty of ducks around for the summer and winter, there are far more ducks (in terms of kinds and numbers) to line up during the spring and fall migrations. Personally I prefer the spring line-up (I am not a duck hunter, so I am allowed to say this). You see, it gets down to the pizzazz factor. Fall migrants are not in their best attire. With their breeding seasons complete, the participants are worn out from child-rearing & courtship. A duck enters the fall migration with his or her hair down, so to speak. Many of the males are in their dull eclipse plumage. Most of the young-of-the-year are still in their pimply adolescent stage. In the spring, on the other hand, most everyone is dressed to the nines.

Returning male migrants – those who have spent their winter months sipping cool drinks with little umbrellas in them – are coming back north for one reason only. They want to find a chick (mate) and have ducklings with her. Every hot-blooded male (well, most males anyway) knows that the best way to get a chick is to look your best and hide your body odors. To put it into multi-species language: putting aftershave and a nice shirt on a pig can and will work (especially if the girl pigs also wear lipstick). Certain duck guys really know how to do this. In the waterfowl world both sexes look their best in the springtime, but the guys look simply ravishing.

It is not my intention to cover every single ravishing spring duck here, but instead to focus on three quackers in particular. My choices were limited by my ability to capture a semi-decent image of them. I also wanted to bring up a few lesser appreciated species. Fortunately, I was able to come up with three startling examples that satisfied these criteria. You can’t find a better trio of guy ducks than the Northern Shoveler, Blue-winged Teal, and Wood Duck. As a bunch they can be considered “butterflies of the waterbird set.”

Shovelers are specialty of the spring migration. These waterfowl pass through on their journey to the northwestern provinces and only linger long enough to re-charge their flight batteries. The males are a study in simple, yet bold, patterning. For those more familiar with mallards, these birds are mallard-like in plumage design but significantly different. Both species have dark green heads. Whereas mallards have chestnut brown chests and light flanks, however, Shovelers have light chests and chestnut brown flanks (see above and below).  In flight they reveal bright powdery blue shoulder patches and their swift flight is more teal-like in character (see here).  There is nothing in the duck world that compares with their huge spoonbills.

Hundreds of Shovelers have been resting in the local marshes over the past few weeks. They are very timid birds and will burst into flight at the slightest provocation. I found it difficult to get close enough to photograph them until I started to do my Jimmy Durante imitation – at which point they remained in place out of curiosity. If you believe that statement, then I have a million more you might like. At any rate, spring Shovelers are a rare treat.

My encounter with a dazzling pair of Blue-wing Teal was much more informal than my Shoveler encounters (see above). These two birds, pint-sized when compared to other ducks, were dabbling in a flooded section of grass adjacent to the Lake Erie shore (see here). They paid little attention to me. Again, the male stole the show with his bright white face crescent, gray-blue head, speckled flanks, and blue shoulder patch (revealed when the bird commenced preening – see below). You will notice a physical resemblance between this bird and the previously mentioned Shovelers because they are closely related (part of the blue-wing complex – a drinking club based in Boca Raton, Florida).

Finally, I’d like to re-direct your attention to the Wood Duck. To save this resplendent fowl for last is somewhat of a crime, I will admit. This bird is not only the most colorful duck in Michigan it is arguably one of the most colorful birds in the world. Tropical birds have nothing over this creature. Unlike the first two ducks, the woodie remains as a summer resident. Unlike the others as well, this bird remains beautiful all year long. The female, while having nice bone structure, remain nice and plain all year long.

I came upon a Wood Duck pair a few mornings ago. They were exceedingly cautious and I had to employ my best stealth techniques in order to get close enough to view them. The male bird raised his head to peer through the vegetation as he heard my Durante rendition. Even through I’ve seen this species hundreds of time, when viewed in the bright morning light through the lens of the camera I was again blown away (see above). In this view he looks almost girlish! I don’t know, like some rock band singer from the seventies. But, effeminate nature aside, this is one purdy duck. It is probably more purdier than all the rest of them in the spring line-up. They is all purdy though.

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