Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 10, 2014

Fowls in the Winter Stream

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:32 pm

About the only open water available these days is to be found in the flowing waters of the River Raisin where it slips past the rocky matrix in midtown and below the step dams located further upstream. This liquid resource acts as a magnet for waterfowl and a wide variety of frigid fowl are attracted to the river at these points. Although a huge number of Canada Geese and Mallards dominate this crowd, a surprising number of divers are in evidence. Diverse divers in da river are delightful (wow, wasn’t that incredibly clever).

Because these diverse divers are so de…fascinating, I’d like to spend a few blog posts on them. So, consider this a warning that unless some dazzling natural phenomenon interferes – such as a wandering Polar Bear in downtown Temperance – you will be seeing lots of duck pictures. Let this also serve as a warning that these are incredible looking creatures and, unlike a rather bland looking Polar Bear in a Snowstorm, their bold patterns and antics make for some de…fascinating images.

Red heads and Blue bills

Quite a few Redheads can be seen bucking the current and diving. They are well-named only if you consider the males and ignore the females (which is the case of virtually all birds with the exception of the Belted Kingfisher). The guys have bright round reddish heads atop a black breast and dark gray back while the gals are adorned in subtle shades of brown. The bright yellow eyes of the males give them a look of perpetual surprise – which is, come to think of it, the basic male look in all species.

The winter flock consists of an equal number of males and females, but they are not yet paired for the upcoming season. Like all winter ducks, staying warm is not an issue due to their thick layer of water-repellant down. For now, their only concern is to find food. They plunge head first into the current and seek aquatic plants and invertebrates off the bottom. In the case of the mid-town river the overall depth is only a foot or so and this trip is not a long one. The birds generally bob to the surface a few yards ahead of their original dive location and allow the current to deliver them back to the starting point for another dive.

Although the Red-heads have blue bills, their river partners the Bluebills have cornered the naming market in this area.  Technically they are called Scaups and even more technically they are classified as either Greater or Lesser Scaups.  Duck hunters, who are responsible for the Bluebill name, usually don’t differentiate between the two species but will use bill terminology to divide them. Greaters have “broad-bills” (and are so called) and Lessers have narrower bills (called just plain bluebills).

I’ve only seen a few male birds in the river and frankly I can’t easily tell which “bill” they represent. From a distance they are chunky black and white fowl with dark heads and butts, vermiculated backs (barred), and bright blue bills. Like the Red-heads, they also dive with gusto but specialize on snails and small clams – thus the actual meaning of scaup meaning mussel-eater. So, you see it is not a bad name, but doesn’t offer the flair of the nickname.

In general, the Greater Blue, or Broad-bills, have a rounded head with a greenish cast to it. The Lesser Blue-bills have an oval shaped head with a little crest or bump to mark the high point. Their head coloration tends toward the purplish side. Now, the lessers are a bit smaller than the greaters , but this is only apparent when the two are in a mixed group.

I will not get into this any deeper other than to say that a single bird I spotted at the Huron River in Flat Rock (see above and here) was definitely a Lesser Scaup based on the previously mentioned traits. Two bobbing sleepers in the Raisin at the foot of the step dam in Dundee, however, looked to be Greaters – even though they didn’t exactly look so great (see below) nor am I going to stake my reputation on it.

The Dundee Dam ducks were fun to watch because they were in resting mode. Head tucked over the back with the bill rammed deep into the contour feathers, they swam around the rapids with effortless impunity without changing their peaceful pose. One of them became alerted as it spotted me and took a prolonged gander (ducks can gander) in my direction but it soon figured out that I wasn’t about to jump into the water and was not a threat.

Before resuming the resting position this little duck stretched, opened its mouth, and stuck out its pink tongue. It appeared to be laughing at the cold and enjoying its winter life on the roiling river.  “It’s a duck’s life for me and I’m as happy as can be.”

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