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.

Welcome Warblers!

They say April showers bring May flowers. We certainly received our fair share of April showers the past week. We were lucky to get a bit of a break from the rain on Saturday, so Dave and I used that opportunity to go to Palmyra Cove Nature Park. I heard that many warblers and other migrants have been flooding into the area, so I wanted to see how many we could spot. We did pretty well for 2 1/2 hours and overcast conditions: 33 bird species, 2 deer, 3 groundhogs, and turtles galore.

A few minutes into our journey we entered a meadow. We spotted a hawk soaring and wanted to see if we could get a better look. Suddenly we heard a sharp tschat call from the tall grasses and out popped our first warbler of the season: a male Common Yellowthroat! He quickly hid once realizing we were stalking him but we were able to catch a glimpse of him a few more times. Male Common Yellowthroats are pretty distinctive; they have a black face mask and their throats/chests are a yellow-olive. Female Yellowthroats are much duller and lack the black mask that the male displays. We ended up seeing a few male Yellowthroats. Many of the birds we saw during this trip were small and fast, so we tried our best when it cam to pictures. We did get to see the soaring hawk, and decided that he was a Broad-winged Hawk.

Male Common Yellowthroat (Image by David Horowitz)

The second warbler of the day is one of my favorites: the Yellow Warbler. Remember when I talked about dream birds? The Yellow Warbler was my dream bird for awhile. I wanted to see one so badly, and finally saw my first last spring at Boundary Creek. Yellow Warblers are almost completely yellow, with breeding males sporting  chestnut stripes down their chests. Throughout our entire hike we could hear them singing from the trees. Sometimes ornithologists will use mnemonic devices to help people learn birdsong,  and I think the Yellow Warbler’s is very appropriate: Sweet-sweet-I-am-so-sweet! πŸ™‚

Male Yellow Warbler

Our next stop was the Beaver Pond. We had to walk through the forest area and on the way we saw/heard: Robins, Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Flickers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Brown Cowbirds, American Crows, Northern Cardinals, and Song Sparrows. A great spectacle waited for us at the Beaver Pond: tons of turtles! They were on every log and rock available. There had to be at least 70 turtles or more of different sizes and species.

At the pond there were also: Canada Geese, Mallards, Tree Swallows, a Green Heron, and a Pied-billed Grebe.

Male Tree Swallow (Image by David Horowitz)

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flitted around the trees nearby. I am still shocked that Dave managed to get a picture of one; Gnatcatcher are super fast.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Image by David Horowitz)

We even were able to find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest on our way to the cove.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest (Image by David Horowitz)

The last stop of the day was the Cove Trail. We weren’t able to get any good pictures because everything was far. The biggest surprise at the cove: Green-winged Teals! They are some of our Winter Waterfowl visitors and I expected them to have migrated already. They were busy waddling through the mudflats looking for food. Others found at the cove were: a Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Northern Rough-winged Swallows , Tree Swallows, and a really big Snapping Turtle.

It was starting to get windy and rain was threatening so we headed back to the car. We took a quick walk on the beach and saw some Double-crested Cormorants. When we went back to the forest part of the trail we saw an Eastern Towhee and I heard my first Gray Catbird of the season. I’ve been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Gray Catbirds and I was a little disappointed that I only heard it, but I’m glad to know they are back. Overall, we had a great day greeting some of the new spring migrants. I’m looking forward to going to Amico Island and Boundary Creek soon to see some more warblers. Have you seen any warblers yet?

Amico…take two!

Tuesday was my last day off from my job’s spring break, so of course I used my free time to go birding. I went to Amico Island for the second time in a week, this time with Dave’s mother (Dave and I went Friday and saw all sorts of large birds). It was a lovely afternoon; sunny and around 60 degrees.

The area near the parking lot is part of Dredge Harbor, so there’s an area of water right when you walk into the park. It was low tide so the mudflats were exposed. When the tide is higher we usually see Great Blue Herons, gulls, or Mallards in this area. We had a surprise this time.

A flock of Green-winged Teals! There were around 30 of them waddling through the mudflats. They were busily looking for food and leaving trails in the mud. It was unexpected, but a nice start to the walk.

male green-winged teal
Male Green-winged Teal feeding in the mudflats (Image by BirdNation)

Our first route was the blue trail, which passes by the Great Blue Heron rookery. On the way we saw Downy Woodpeckers, American Robins, and Carolina Chickadees. There were about 7 Great Blue Herons at the rookery. One was bringing a large stick to its nest, while another made low croaking noises. At the rookery observation area we spotted some Yellow-rumped Warblers (my ‘first of year’) hopping between branches.We were so busy watching the warblers that we didn’t notice a Great Blue Heron standing directly below us on the rocks. Its plumage was gorgeous up close and were able to see its striped crown really well (it looked better in person than in the picture I got).

gbh closeup
Great Blue Heron (Image by BirdNation)

After we left the rookery observation area, I was talking about how I haven’t see any deer my last few visits. Last year Dave and I would frequently see deer when visiting Amico and would almost always see a specific doe and her fawn. The deer must have known I was talking about them: suddenly 10 deer showed up! They noticed us, but quickly relaxed and continued feeding like we weren’t there. It was cool, because I don’t usually see that many deer in a group at one time. It was a nice transition to the second part of the walk.

We continued onto the red and yellow trails, which loop around the pond and lead to the beach entrance. Here we saw Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, Crows, and more robins (of course!). It was too windy to walk on the beach, but we did spot some Ring-billed Gulls, Canada Geese, and Mallards. At the pond there was an American Coot preening near a log. It was my first coot sighting at Amico Island.

American Coot (Image by BirdNation)

One thing that was especially exciting for me about this trip was the fact that a new spring migrant arrived: swallows!  These little aerial acrobats were fluttering everywhere! Seeing swallows is another spring milestone that I look forward to every year. We mainly saw Tree Swallows, but there may have been some Northern Rough-winged Swallows mixed in. I’m thinking this swallow we watched resting on a branch is a Northern Rough-winged. I’m not 100% on id yet (I will let you know when I figure it out). If it is, then its a new “life bird” for me. It was awfully cute.

Swallow resting on a branch (Image by BirdNation)

Our walk took about 2 hours. When we returned to the parking lot the flock of Green-winged Teals was still feeding, bringing our walk around full circle. It was a nice way to end my spring break.

Green-winged Teal: Waterfowl Wednesday

Today is our last Waterfowl Wednesday for the winter season. But don’t worry! Our new feature, Migration Monday, will begin next week. Migration Monday will feature birds who are arriving in my area for spring migration.

For our final Waterfowl Wednesday I chose a duck that be considered a crossover between our winter and spring features. This duck is a winter visitor in my area, but is getting ready to migrate back to its breeding ground. It’s the Green-winged Teal.

Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)


Green-winged Teals are the smallest North American dabbling duck. They have blocky, short bodies/necks/bills and large heads. Males have grayish bodies that feature a white,  vertical shoulder stripe, cinnamon-colored heads, and a pinkish breast. They have green ear patches and a custard-colored patch below its tail. Females are brown with a yellowish-streak along their tails. Both males and females have short, grayish-black bills and green speculum feathers. A speculum is a small panel of feathers on a duck’s wing that is a contrasting color from the rest of its wing. Sometimes the speculum may only be visible during flight.

Female and male Green-winged Teals. Note the green speculums on their wings (Image by Ed Konrad via birdsofseabrookisland.org)


Breeding: Canada and the Northern United States. Winter: Southern United States and the Coasts. Migration: throughout the Midwest. Resident of parts of the Northwest.


Marshes, lakes, bays, and ponds

Food: Mainly aquatic invertebrates and seeds. May also eat worms, plants, crustaceans, and tadpoles. Green-winged Teals are dabblers, but may sometimes dive for food or to escape a predator.


Large groups of males (up to 25) will attempt to court a female with elaborate vocal displays and movements both on water and in flight. In one display the male rears out of the water, sticks his head forward,  and rapidly shakes his bill in the water while making loud whistling sounds. By the time Green-winged Teals arrive at their breeding ground they have already mated. New pairs are formed each year. After a females chooses a mate, the male will fight off other suitors. Females create nest near the water by digging out a nest bowl with her feet. She lines it with grass and other materials once she lays her first egg. After laying her last egg she will cover her eggs with down. Average clutch size is 6-11 eggs, which she incubates for 20-24 days. Once incubation begins the male abandons her. When the chicks hatch they are able to swim, dabble for food, and walk right away. The mother will protect them and brood them at night. The chick will fledge in about 35 days.

Green-winged Teal males displaying for courtship (Image by Larry Jordan via TheBirdersReport.com)


Females quack, and males will make whistling sounds during courtship

Fun Facts:

  • Green-winged Teals breed farther North than any other American teals.
  • They are one of the swiftest fliers among duck species. They can quickly maneuver their way around in small groups in unison by twisting and turning throughout their flight.
Green-winged Teals in flight (Image via cabelas.com)
  • Mating pairs are usually formed on wintering grounds. Once a pair forms a bond, the male will follow the female to her former breeding grounds. However, since Green-winged Teals for new pairs each year, males will not necessarily return to the wintering site to find females the following year.
  • Like the Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teals have lamellae, which are small comb-like projections on the edge of their bills that help them filter food from the water.
  • The Eurasian form of the Green-winged Teal has a horizontal white shoulder stripe, as opposed to the North America’s vertical shoulder stripe. There is also a subspecies called Anas creeca nimia that lives on the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. This subspecies does not migrate like other Green-winged Teals. Instead they travel from their summer sites to their winter sites, which are the beaches on the islands.

Well, we only have 3 more days of Winter, so enjoy them. Starting on Sunday will have finally made it to Spring!