Eclipse Plumage

Today, August 21, 2017, was a big astronomical event: the first total solar eclipse seen over the United States since 1918. The path of totality went through 14 states from the Pacific to Atlantic Coast, while the rest of the states could view a partial eclipse. Here in New Jersey, we could only see a partial eclipse. I didn’t buy special eclipse glasses so I couldn’t watch it directly. I did however, watch a live stream of the eclipse from South Carolina State Museum, which happened to be in the totality path. It was extremely cool to watch.

Although the eclipse happened at a specific time today, many people don’t realize that an “eclipse” of sorts has been occurring the last few weeks. Have you gone to your local lake or pond and notice that it seems like the male Mallards are “missing”? Many ducks molt their feathers twice a year, one of these times being mid/late-summer. At this time they go into dull-colored basic plumage, or what is referred to as eclipse plumage. For reference, a male duck is called a drake and a female duck is called a hen. In eclipse plumage, drakes take on a hen-like appearance.

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Drake (male) Mallard in Eclipse Plumage (Image by BirdNation)

All birds molt their feathers at some point during the year. For many birds, this takes place after breeding season and before migration. Molting is when old worn out feathers are replaced by new feathers. Many species undergo was is called a sequential molt. During a sequential molt, birds lose one flight feather at a time from the innermost primary feather to the wing tip. This allows the bird the ability to still be able to fly. Waterfowl, however, undergo what is referred to as simultaneous wing molt. As a result, waterfowl loses all their flight feathers at the same time and therefore lose their flying ability. This period of being flightless can last between 20 and 40 days depending on duck species.

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Wood Duck male in Eclipse Plumage (Image via wikimedia commons by Meidosensei)

Eclipse plumage acts as a camouflage for these flightless drakes. The drakes molt their bright colored plumage first, which is replaced by dull brown feathers. This gives them the hen-like appearance. When it comes to Mallards, it could be hard to tell whether you are seeing a hen or drake in eclipse plumage. The trick is to look at the bill. Drakes have yellow bills while hens have orange bills with black markings. Eclipse plumage only happens for a few weeks. After eclipse plumage Mallards will  go into “alternate”  plumage for the fall/winter.

So even though the total solar eclipse is over, you can still see some eclipse plumage with the ducks at your local pond.

Have you been seeing any eclipse plumage drakes lately? And did you watch the solar eclipse? Tell me about these things in the comments!

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Wood Duck Wednesday!

For the final Waterfowl Wednesday of the winter, I wanted to feature one of my favorite ducks; the Wood Duck. I am always on the lookout for Wood Ducks when I go birding, especially at Boundary Creek. Dave and I know a mating pair live there, so we always try to find them. The last time we visited Boundary, the Wood Duck pair was hanging out with the Mallards. We were able to get our best picture of them to date, and even that is still blurry because they are always slightly to far out of range.

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Boundary Creek Wood Duck pair (Image by David Horowitz)

Anyway, I think Wood Ducks are beautiful birds and always wonderful to see. Here are 7 fun facts about these stunning ducks.

  • Both male and female Wood Ducks have distinctive plumage. Males have buffy flanks, a chestnut breast, a round head with a purplish-green hooded crest, and a white “bridle”. Their eyes and bill are bright red-orange. Females are a pale gray with spotted flanks. She has an eyering and white patches that encircle the eyes. Even though their plumage is so distinctive, they are masters of camouflage in their habitat (especially the female, who can seem to disappear by simply moving over a few steps). They are smaller than Mallards, at about 19 inches in length.
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Male and Female Wood Ducks (Image by BS Thurner Hof via wikimedia commons)
  •  Unlike most ducks, Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities. As a result, they have strong claws that help them climb trees. The tree is usually close to water, but can be as far away as 1.2 miles.
  • Of all the North American ducks, Wood Ducks are the only species that regularly produce 2 broods per year. There can be up to 15 eggs in a nest cavity. When the young hatch they are precocial, so they have their down feathers and leave the nest within a few hours. Remember, they hatched up high in a tree, so Wood Duck chicks need to jump out of the tree to make their way towards the water! It’s quite a sight to watch a parachuting Wood Duck chick. (I suggest you google some videos of jumping wood duck chicks, it’s a lot of fun!)
  • Wood Ducks live year-round in the Southeastern and Pacific Coast of the United States. They can breed throughout the Midwest, New England, and Northwestern United States. They are rarely found throughout most of the Interior West/Southwest, except for small pockets of year-round populations. They prefer wooded habitats near rivers, ponds, streams, and swamps.
  • It’s common for Wood Ducks to demonstrate intraspecific brood parasitism, meaning females will lay their eggs in each other’s nests. It’s possibly that a nest cavity that has been parasitized can have up to 40 eggs in it!
  • They are strong fliers, and can fly up to speeds of 30 miles per hour.
  • Ducklings can jump from a tree up to 300 ft high without injury!
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Female and chicks (Image via Pinterest, liberatingwings.typepad.com)

Have you ever seen a Wood Duck? Tell me your Wood Duck experience in the comments.

Next week is Spring, so we will start a new feature. I hope you enjoyed another winter of Waterfowl Wednesday!

 

Long-tailed Duck Waterfowl Wednesday

Hi friends! Sorry that I disappeared for a bit. It’s been quite a hectic few weeks to say the least. I’m hoping to get back to a more regular writing schedule again. I feel bad about missing the last two Waterfowl Wednesdays, but we still have 3 more until the spring. Once spring starts, the new weekly feature will be Warbler Sunday. You know I like to use alliteration (lol), but Wednesdays are a little rough these days because of my Calculus class, so I’m switching to Sundays for a bit. But in the meantime, we’re going to feature the distinctive Long-tailed Duck.

Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)

Description:

Long-tailed Ducks are small and stocky sea ducks. They have round heads/bodies and short bills. Although their plumage changes seasonally, Long-tails always have dark breasts/wings, white bellies, and some patches of white on their heads.

During the summer, males have black heads/chests/wing, a gray patch on their faces and buffy upper back feathers. The female’s summer plumage is mainly dark with a white eye patch that extends down towards the ear, and brown eyes.

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Male Long-tailed Duck in winter breeding plumage (Image by Eric Reuter via ducks.org)

In the winter males have white heads/necks, black cheeks/lower back/chest, and gray upper back feathers. They also have a gray face and yellow-brown eyes. As their name suggests, in both seasons males have a long, black, central tail feather that noticeably sticks out. Winter females have grayish-brown breasts/back/crowns, white heads/necks/bellies, and dark brown cheek patches. Juveniles are mainly brownish gray with white bellies.

Range:

Summer (breeding): the high Arctic: Northern Alaska and Canada. Migration: Canada and the Northeastern United States. Winter: off the coast of Alaska and south down the Pacific Coast, Atlantic Coast. Rarely found in the mainland USA.

Habitat:

Summer breeding grounds are open tundra, lakes, and edges of northern forests near water. In winter, they are found at large lakes,the ocean, and sometimes freshwater areas.

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Female Long-tailed Duck in winter plumage (Image by Kevin Law via wikimedia commons)

Diet:

Crustaceans, mollusks, aquatic insects, small fish, and some plan material. They are diving ducks who forage by swimming underwater. They mostly diving up to 30 feet from the surface, but have supposedly said to go as deep as 200 feet. They diving deeper than any other duck.

Breeding/Nesting:

Long-tailed Ducks start breeding around the age of 2. Courtship behavior begins in the later winter/early spring and includes tail-raising and head tossing/shaking. They nest on the ground offshore, usually near rocks or hidden under low growth. The nest is a depression in the ground lines with some plant materials and down feathers.

The female will lay between 6-8 eggs that she incubates for 24-29 days. The young are precocial, so they leave the nest shortly after hatching. They are tended to by the female, but can feed themselves and dive fairly well. First flight occurs around 35-40 days.

Sounds:

Most vocal between February and June. Males give a clear yodeling upup OW OweLEP! Females give a quack urk urk or kak kak kak and soft grunts.

(If you want to hear the interesting sound of the male, check out this Audubon article that features a podcast by BirdNote: Listen to the Quirky Call of the Long-tailed Duck)

Conservation:

Not much is known about currently population trends, by the IUCN lists them as vulnerable.

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Long-tailed male and female in summer plumage (Image by the USFWS via nhptv.org)

Fun Facts:

  • Long-tailed Ducks used to be known as Oldsquaws. The name was changed due to political correctness.
  • They tends to fly low to the water with quick, shallow wingbeats.
  • Long-tailed Ducks tend to wear their breeding plumage at the opposite times then other ducks. Most ducks have their “basic plumage” in the winter and “breeding plumage” for a short time in the late summer. Long-tailed Ducks wear their breeding plumage only in the winter.
  • They are usually found in small groups and don’t mix with other duck species often.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Happy Waterfowl Wednesday!

We had some record-breaking warmth today here in New Jersey. The high was 61 degrees, but unfortunately the spring like weather won’t last long. The temperatures will be plummeting tonight and it’s predicted that we will get 4-8 inches of snow tomorrow. I’m not sure what the outcome will be, but I wasn’t ready to let go of the warm weather idea. I was looking through my field guide I found an unusual-looking duck that lives in mainly warm weather regions: the Black-bellied Whistling Duck. So as I’m dealing with a snow storm tomorrow, I’ll just imagine I’m in Florida with the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks haha :-).

Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)

Description:

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are fairly large, lanky ducks with long necks. Adults have a chestnut brown breast/black, a black belly, white wing patches, and gray heads. Whistling Ducks have a pale, but distinct eye-ring. They also have bright pink bills and legs. Whistling Ducks are an example of monomorphism, where it is difficult to tell apart males and females based on physical appearance. Juveniles are duller in appearance with a pale breast, mottled black belly, and dark bill.

Range:

Year Round: Florida, Southeast Texas, the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, the coasts of Mexico, Southeast Arizona (seasonally), and extensively throughout Central and South America. Summer (breeding): Lousiana, Eastern Texas, Southern Arkansas. Rare in other Southeast and Midwestern states.

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(Image by CCNAB, Birds-of_North-America.net)

Habitat:

Ponds surrounded by trees, freshwater lakes, open fields; a variety of human-made habitats such as school yards, city parks, a golf course. Being able to adapt well to habitats altered by humans have help the Whistling Duck expand their range northward in recent years.

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A small flock of Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks in Tobago (Image by Charlesjsharp of Sharp Photography, via wikimedia commons)

Diet:

Whistling Ducks typically forage at night mainly for seeds, and a variety of grasses. They are dabblers in shallow water for small aquatic animals. They will commonly forage in agricultural fields such as corn, wheat, and millet.

Breeding:

One thing that distinguishes Black-bellied Whistling Ducks from other duck species is the fact they they a monogamous and may mate for life. This behavior is more typical in geese and swans than ducks. Another unique Black-bellied characteristic is the lack of complex courtship behavior that other ducks display. Whistling Ducks will lay their eggs in tree cavities on top of whatever debris is already there. Both parents will take turns incubating the 12-16 eggs for 25-30 days. It’s common for females to lay their eggs in other female’s nests, which is referred to as “egg dumping” (and is an example of brood parasitism). Some of the “dump nests” can have up to 50-60 eggs in them!

Like other duck species, Whistling Duck chicks are precocial, so they will jump out from the nest a day or two after hatching with the ability to feed themselves. The parents will tend to the chicks for about 2 months before they fledge.

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Black-bellied Whistling Duck in flight (Image by Greg Lavaty via birdzilla.com)

Sounds:

As you would imagine from their name, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks let out a wheezy but sharp whistle. The whistle is usually 5-6 syllables: pit pit WEEE do deew! They use this whistle during flight and while swimming and standing. While taking flight they will make a yip and sometimes a chit-chit-chit

Conservation:

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are highly adaptable and considered a “least concern”. Populations have increased at a rate of around 6% per year from 1966-2014.The increase is partly due to the availability of nest boxes. It’s legal to hunt them, but they are rarely targeted.

Fun Facts:

  • Black-bellied Whistling Ducks can be found in flocks of up to 1,000 birds!
  • They like to perch in trees, and used to be called the Black-bellied Tree Duck.
  • Population estimates are between 1 and 2 million ducks.

Mallard: Waterfowl Wednesday

When I choose a bird for a weekly feature, such as Waterfowl Wednesday, I like to pick birds that I feel people might not know much about. It’s exciting for me too, because I can to expand my knowledge of species life history. But with over 800 North American birds, I’ll admit that sometimes I’m not really sure who to write about for the feature. So what do I do about it?

Ask my mom :-).

She’s been one of my readers since day one, and hasn’t missed a post (hi mom!). She (and also my sister, Mary) are budding bird enthusiasts, and I’m impressed with how good their id skills have become and of the knowledge they amassed since they started birding with me. Tonight I asked her who I should write about an she suggested the Mallard.

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A Mallard pair at Palmyra Cove (Image by BirdNation)

What is there to know about the Mallard? We’ve all seen them at our local parks and wetlands. Like Canada Geese, they just happen to be everywhere. Some people even dismiss them because they think since they are so common they are not even worth considering (crazy, right?)! It seems like we already know the basics: they’re dabblers, females are brown/males are gray-brown with green heads, they have lots of cute chicks, they quack a lot. That’s everything, right?

Nope! As common as they are, Mallards are fascinating. The quintessential duck, Mallards are much more interesting than most people give them credit for. Here are 8 magnificent facts about Mallards.

  • Mallards are the most common ducks in the Northern Hemisphere. They are native to North America and Eurasia, but have extended their range to include parts of Africa, Australia, South America, and New Zealand. It’s estimated that there are around 10 million Mallards that are of breeding age in North America alone.
  • Mallards are the main ancestor to most breeds of domestic ducks, with the exception of Muscovy Ducks. They are part of the genus Anas. Mallards hybridize frequently with other members of the Anas family, including American Black Ducks, Northern Pintails, Gadwalls, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teals, and Mottled Ducks.
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Mallard with a domestic hybird at Haddon Lake Park (Image by BirdNation)
  • During flight, Mallards can fly up to 55 miles per hour!
  • Did you know when you hear the familar “quack”  that you are hearing a female? Male’s don’t quack, but makes a quieter rasping call.
  • Sometimes, a  Mallard’s nest will fall victim to being infested by brood parasites (when a female lays her eggs in another bird’s nest). Common parasitic species include Redheads, Gadwalls, Ruddy Ducks, goldeneyes, and even other mallards. A female may accept the egg if it looks similar to her own, but my destroy it or abandon the nest completely if it occurs during egg laying.
  • Once a female Mallard starts incubating her eggs, the male with abandon her to care for the eggs on her own. She can lay beetween 7-10 eggs, sometimes up to 15. The female will incubate them for between 26-30 days. Like other waterfowl species, the yellow and brown fuzzy chicks are precocial, and will leave the nest within a few hours. The mother will tend to her chicks, but they can feed themselves.
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Mallard chicks (Image by HomeinSalem via wikimedia commons)
  • Male Mallards are called “drakes” and female Mallards are called “hens”.
  • Mallards can fly at altitudes between 400 and 2,00 feet, but can fly higher as well.

I can go on and on about how fascinating Mallard are, but we just don’t the time (and you wouldn’t want to read a 4,000 word post haha!). But next time you see one at your local park, just remember that there are so many cool things to know about this common species. Plus, they are fun to party with, I did it once (you can read about that and watch the video hereWarning: mallard parties get pretty chaotic, so be prepared for it to get loud!)

What’s your favorite thing about Mallards? Tell me in the comments below, as well as any bird-related topics you’d like to learn about.

Snow Goose: Waterfowl Wednesday

Today’s featured waterfowl is the Snow Goose, a winter visitor who travels in flocks that can number to the several hundred thousand.

I remember my first experience with Snow Geese a few winters ago. It was at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. A large flock flew in and made landed in middle of a field, honking loudly. There were thousands of them, and it was quite a spectacle to watch. There’s nothing quite like experiencing a flock of Snow Geese. Have you experienced a Snow Goose flock? Tell me about it in the comments.

Snow Goose (Chen caerulesens)

Description:

Snow Geese come in two color morphs: white and dark (or “blue”) morph.White adult Snow Geese are mainly white with black primary feathers and pink legs/bills. White juveniles have grayish upperparts and dark legs/bills. Dark adults have grayish-brown bodies with white heads and pink legs/bills, while juveniles are dark overall. There is a considerable amount of variation between birds that have a mix of white and dark morph plumage.

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White Morph Snow Geese (Image by Jeff Lewis via fws.gov/refuge/mackay_island

Range:

Summer (breeding): high arctic and subarctic areas of Canada and Northern Alaska. Migrates in large flocks through the middle of North America to reach winter destinations on the Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast into parts of the Midwest USA, and scattered areas around the Western United States. Snow Geese for 3 populations: west, central, and east; and will migrate south in the same region.

Habitat:

Tundra during breeding season; winters in agricultural fields, saltmarshes, streams, ponds, grasslands, and lakes.

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Dark, or “blue” morph (Image by Adrian Pingstone via wikimedia commons)

Diet:

Almost entirely plant materials: grasses, seeds, sedges, horsetails, shrubs, grains; and will consume any part of a plant. May also eat berries. Goslings (young geese) may eat insect larvae

Breeding/Nesting:

Snow Geese usually start to breed around 3 years old, and may mate for life. In courtship displays, a pair will face each other and repeatedly stretch their necks up in unison. Pairs will pick a nest site together, but the female will build the nest. She will put a scrape in the ground and may add natural materials. As she lays more eggs, the female will line the nest with feathers plucked from her breast. Females can incubate the 2-6 eggs for up to 21 hours a day, with the male standing guard to defend the nest site. After 22-25 days of incubation, the goslings will hatch and leave the nest site within a few hours. Being precocial, they can forage for themselves, but will be tended to by the parents. Goslings fledge around 42-50 days after hatching.

Sounds:

One of the noisiest of waterfowl, giving a one-syllable harsh honk. Family groups will communicate using guttural notes.

Conservation:

Snow Goose numbers have grown considerably over the last century. Hunting is permitted, and about 400,000 geese annually are hunted in the United States and Canada.

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Flock of Snow Geese (Image via wildfowlmag.com)

Fun Facts:

  • There are 2 races of Snow Geese: the Greater Snow Goose, who breeds in the northeastern region and winters on the Atlantic Coast, and the Lesser Snow Goose.
  • While choosing a mate, a Snow Goose will usually choose another goose of the same “morph” (white or “blue”), or a mate that looks similar to its family members.
  • Although their main activities are eating and resting, Snow Geese are strong swimmers, fliers, and walkers. Within the first 3 weeks of life, goslings may walk up to 50 miles with their parents to find a more suitable brood-rearing sight.

 

Dabbling and Diving Ducks

Hi everyone! Sorry I didn’t post a Waterfowl Wednesday yesterday. One of my pets has been sick, so it’s been a rough week for me and I haven’t been getting much sleep. So I’m going to make up for it today with a post about the different kinds of ducks.

Ducks can be split into 3 major categories: dabblers, divers, and sea ducks. Knowing what category a duck species belongs to can tell you a lot about their lifestyle.

Dabbling Ducks feed by “tipping up”: submerging their heads underwater with their tails in the air. They sit high up on the water and have longer bills that help them filter food from the water’s surface. A dabbler’s feet are towards the middle of their body, making it easier for them to walk on land. They have a small hind toe. Since they have long wings, it’s easier for dabblers to take flight at a moment’s notice right off the surface of the water. They also have brightly-colored speculum feathers (a patch of secondary feathers located on their sides). Dabblers are typically found (but not restricted to) shallow waters and are omnivorous; eating aquatic vegetation, worms, and insects. Dabbling ducks are also capable of diving, but rarely do so. Examples of dabbling ducks include Mallards, Northern Shovelers, Wood Ducks, Green-winged Teals, Blue-winged Teals, Gadwalls, and Northern Pintails (to name a few).

Diving Ducks feed by submerging their whole bodies underwater. Their feet are larger and further back on their bodies, allowing divers to be strong swimmers underwater. They tend to sit lower on the water’s surface. Their hind toes has a large lobe. Their wings are shorter than dabbler’s wings, so diver have to run and furiously flap to become air-born from the water. A diver’s speculum feathers are duller than a dabbler’s. Divers and dabblers can be found in the same habitat, but divers prefer open waters or saltwater habitats. Divers kick their strong feet to obtain submerged prey and will eat clams, fish, invertebrates, and plant material. Examples of diving ducks include Canvasbacks, Scaups, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, American Wigeons, and Redheads (to name a few).

Most people break ducks down into dabblers and divers, but you can go even further by breaking down divers into sea ducks. They generally live in marine habitats (mergansers tend to prefer riparian habitats). Many sea ducks have developed specialized glands so they can tolerate salt water. Their bills are also specialized and adapted to eat fish, mollusks, and crustaceans. Most sea ducks spend most of the year far north in Canada and Alaska, so they generally breed later than other kinds of ducks and raise their young in open waters. They are superb divers, and some can dive up to depths of 180 feet! Sea ducks include mergansers, eiders, smews, Harlequin Ducks, Long-tailed Ducks, goldeneyes,  Buffleheads and scoters.

 

What’s your favorite kind of ducks? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. My favorite dabbler is the Wood Ducks, diver is the Ruddy Duck, and sea duck is the Hooded Merganser.