Surf Scoter: Waterfowl Wednesday

We are almost a month into winter, so I thought it would a great time for a Waterfowl Wednesday post. If you’ve been following me for awhile, you know that I love waterfowl, and winter is the best time to look for different species. For new readers, waterfowl is any bird that is a duck, goose, or swan. So without further ado, today’s featured species is Surf Scoter.

Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)

Description:

  • Black-and white, medium-sized sea duck
  • Has no white on wings
  • Wedge shaped heads
  • Males: distinct swollen bill of orange, white, red, yellow, and a dark black spot. Yellowish-white or blue-gray eyes. Red-orange feet with dusky webs. White patches on nape of neck and forehead.
  • Females: Dark crown on head and neck. White patches below and behind eyes. Plain, sloping greenish-black bill. Pale gray, yellow, or brown eyes. Brown to yellow-colored feet with black webs.
  • Juvenile: Similar to female, but has brown eyes, white belly and whiter face patches
Male Surf Scoter (Image by BirdNation)
Female Surf Scoter (Image by BirdNation)

Range

  • Breeding: exclusively breeds in North America, specifically Alaska and Northern Canada
  • Winter: Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, sometimes Gulf Coast
  • Migration: Migrates in flocks over coastal waters, sometimes using lakes for stop-over sites. Migrates through parts of Canada, the Great Lakes, and some New England and Mid-Atlantic States.

Habitat

In winter, oceans and salt bays. In summer, tundra, lakes, and semi-open terrains.

Diet

Mainly mollusks, aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, aquatic insects, some plant material. Surf Scoters are diving ducks. 

Breeding/Nesting

  • Courtship: Many males will try to impress a female using display flights, swimming back and forth with neck up, or exaggerated bows. Pair bonds form on wintering grounds.
  • Nesting: Shallow depression on the ground away from water, usually well hidden.
  • Young: Female incubates 5-9 eggs and tends to the chicks after hatching. Chicks are precocial, meaning they leave the nest shortly after hatching and can feed themselves.
Female and male Surf Scoters at Barnegat Light, NJ (Image by BirdNation)

Vocalizations

Usually silent, but sometimes guttural croaking. Wings in flight make a whistling sound.

Conservation

Population trends are not well known, but are mostly stable.

Fun Facts

  • Egg hatching is synchronous among eggs, meaning they will all hatched around the same time.
  • Similar species to the Surf Scoter are Black Scoters and White-winged Scoters. However, Surf Scoters can be distinguish from other scoter species by their unique bills, white patches on the head, and completely black wings.
  • Flocks can vary in size from 2 to 500 individuals, but can be larger during migration. Surf Scoters frequently flock with Black Scoters, but most other species of ducks can be found among Surf Scoters. They tend to fly in disorganized lines that are constantly fluctuating.

Strange Ducks

Imagine you are at your local pond and all the ducks are out and about. You scan through a flock of Mallards with your binoculars.

Mallard…mallard…mallard…wait, what is that?

You spot a duck that looks…strange. It kind of looks like a Mallard, but something is not quite right. It’s possible that you found a hybrid.

Hybridization is common in birds, but especially so in waterfowl. When two birds of different species mate they can produce a hybrid offspring. The hybrids will usually display characteristics of both parents to some degree. Two of the most common hybridizing species in North American waterfowl are the Mallard and Wood Duck. In fact, scientists have identified around 400 different waterfowl hybrid combinations.

In general, many hybrid offspring are infertile. This is not always the case. Sometimes a hybrid can reproduce, but usually with not as much success as a pure-breed duck. This may occur in species that are more closely related in the same genus. The more evolutionary distant two species are, the more likely their hybrid will have low fitness (relative success of an individual in passing along their genes) or be sterile. Female hybrids are more likely to be inviable than males, due to the fact that sames have two different sex chromosomes and males have two of the same sex chromosomes (the opposite of mammals).

Hybrids actually tend to be rarer than people think. This is because there are many barriers to reproduction between unique waterfowl species. Examples of these barriers include songs/calls, habitat preference, physical attributes, and courtship behaviors. However, when everyone arrives at the breeding grounds and all those hormones get going, well….just about anything can happen.

It’s pretty interesting seeing a hybrid duck. It’s fun to try and figure out what species the parents were. Although interesting, unfortunately sometimes hybridization can lead to a decline in population of a species. Let’s use our Mallards again as an example. Over time, habitat changes in some duck species has led to Mallards expanding their range. In the case of the American Black Duck, their shrinking range has been encroached by Mallards and since these species interact more often,  they result in more American Black Duck x Mallard hybrids. Species threatened by Mallards also include the Mottled Duck of Florida and the Hawaiian Duck.

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American Black Duck x Mallard Hybrid (Image by BirdNation)

Other common duck hybrids include Mallard x Northern Pintail, Gadwall x American Wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon x American Wigeon, and Wood Duck x Mallard.

There’s also the good possibility that the odd duck you saw at the pond could be a domestic duck. It’s not uncommon to find domestic ducks mixed into the waterfowl flock. If a strange duck seems comfortable with/approaches people or has large white patches where you don’t expect it, then it is most likely a domestic duck. We have seen plenty of these domestic ducks at Haddon Lake over the years.

 

And last but not least, my favorite: Puff Duck ( aka “Puffy”, R.I.P. You can read his story, “The Tale of the Three Amigos”, here).

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Puff Duck and friend (Image by BirdNation)

Keep an eye out for strange ducks! Happy duck watching!

The Whistler

Sorry I missed Waterfowl Wednesday this week! It was my first night of my Bio 2 Lab, so I didn’t get home until late. To make up for it, I wanted to share some facts about my newest life list addition, the Common Goldeneye.

  • Hunters sometimes refer to the Common Goldeneye as the “whistler”. Goldeneyes are rapid flyers, so their wings make a whistling sound when they fly away. They can reach speeds of around 40 mph in flight.
  • Common Goldeneyes are part of the genus Bucephala, which is derived from the Greek word boukephalos, meaning “bull-headed”. The other two living species of this genus are the Barrow’s Goldeneye and the Bufflehead.
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Common Goldeneye female and male (Image via pinterest)
  • Goldeneyes have up to 14 different movements that they can use during courtship displays. One common display is when the male stretches out his neck, suddenly whips it back over his body, and kicks his feet up to cause a splash while making a two-note call. Many males will try to court a single female. (I recommend searching “common goldeneye courtship” on Youtube and watching some of the cool display videos).
  • Common Goldeneyes sometimes act as brood parasites  and lay their eggs in another Goldeneye’s nest, particularly when nest sites are in short supply.
  • Like Wood Ducks, Goldeneye females lay their eggs high up in tree cavities. They commonly use Pileated Woodpecker holes, but will use artificial nest sites if readily available. Chicks will leave the nest cavity one day after hatching. They have quite a fall to endure: some Goldeneye cavities can be as high as 60 feet from the ground!
  • During breeding season, Common Goldeneyes are found in the taiga through Alaska and Canada. They spend the winter throughout a majority of the “lower 48” of the United States.
  • The Common Goldeneyes are obviously named for their gold-colored eye, however their eyes change colors many times before adulthood. All chicks are born with gray-brown eyes. By five months of age, their eyes will have transitioned from purple-blue, to blue, to green-blue, to pale green-yellow. Males will have their eyes change to golden by adulthood, while females will have a range from yellow to white.
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The Beautiful Golden Eye By Francis C. Franklin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Gadwall Wednesday

Today’s waterfowl of the week is the Gadwall. This duck may not be as colorful in appearance as other ducks, but Gadwalls have a simple elegance that makes them hard to ignore.

Gadwall (Anas strepera)

Description:

  • Roughly the same size as Mallards
  • Squarish heads with high foreheads
  • White secondary feathers sometimes visible
  • Males: Gray-brown with black tail patch and silver tertial feathers (innermost flight feathers to the wing), black bill 
  • Females: Brown and buffy, orange bill with black spot
  • Juveniles: Gray-brown, plain face, thin black bill with orange sides

Gadwalls
Gadwalls, male (front) and female (rear) (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

  • Resident: Mid-Atlantic Coast, Pacific Coast, Pacific Northwest, Great Plains region
  • Breeding: Upper Great Plains, Great Lakes, parts of Central Canada
  • Winter: Southern regions of United States, Mexico
  • Migration: Medium-distance migrant. Northeastern United States, Midwest region, Ontario, nothern parts of Quebec and Newfoundland

Habitat:

freshwater or alkali lakes, coastal marshes, estuaries, inter-mountain valleys

Diet:

Aquatic vegetation, mollusks, crustaceans, invertebrates, insects. Forages by dabbling or taking food off the water’s surface. Will sometimes scavenge and steal food from other birds, especially American Coots.

Breeding/Nesting:

  • Courtship: Occurs in the fall and pair bonds are monogamous during breeding season. Displays included showing off white patches by making head and tips of tail meet, rearing up with bill in water while whistling. Pairs will face each other and bob heads or hide their bill under the wing as if preening.
  • Nesting Site: A shallow depression about 200 yards from open water in grasses/brush or on small islands.
  • Young: Females incubate 8-11 eggs for about 3 weeks. Chick are precocial so they quickly leave the nest, and are tended to by the mother but can feed themselves. First flight occur around 50 days after hatching.

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Gadwall Nest By USFWS Mountain-Prairie; Credit: Char Binstock / USFWS (2012) (Flickr: Gadwall Nest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Vocalizations:

Females quack similarly to Mallards, though they sound more nasally and higher-pitched. Males give a deep call during flight that is referred to as a “burp”.

Conservation:

Gadwall populations have actually increased over the years due to conservation programs.

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes females will act as brood parasites and lay their eggs in another female’s nest.
  • Gadwalls are the third most hunted duck in North America (after Mallard and Green-winged Teal respectively)
  • Gadwalls also breeding in parts of Asia and northern Europe.
  • Females will consume more invertebrates than males do to get more protein while laying her eggs. She will lay one egg each day until she completes the brood.

American Wigeon: Waterfowl Wednesday

It’s one of the best times of the year again: waterfowl season! And you know what means…the Waterfowl Wednesday feature is back for its 3rd winter!

Today we took our first winter trip down to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR and saw a plethora of waterfowl (13 species to be exact). One of these species was the lovely American Wigeon.

American Wigeon (Anas americana)

Description:

  • Male Alternate Plumage (breeding): Pinkish-brown body, white forehead, green patch from eye to nape, white rear flanks, green speculum, black undertail coverts, gray cheeks/chin, white patch on upper wing, gray slightly down-turned bill with black tip
  • Male Basic Plumage: (eclipse)Variable amounts of green and white on heads, and some white on undertail coverts (usually black)
  • Female: Reddish-brown body, mainly gray heads with dusky/white streaks, gray slightly down-turned bill with black tip
  • Immature: Very similar to female plumage, gets black tip on gray bill as it gets older

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American Wigeon male (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

  • Breeding: Canada and Northwestern United States
  • Resident: Parts of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and Colorado
  • Winter: Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, southern half of United States, Mexico
  • Migration: New England and Midwestern regions of United States

Habitat:

freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, bays, fields, lakes, coastal estuaries

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Breeding male American Wigeon (Image by David Horowitz)

Diet:

Mainly aquatic plants, mollusks, some insects, seeds. Forages day or night on land or in shallow water by submerging head. Sometimes steals prey from diving ducks in deeper waters.

Breeding/Nesting:

  • Courtship: jumping out of water, head-turning, wing-flapping, wagging tail. Several males court a single female, with pairs forming on wintering grounds.
  • Nesting Site: Dry land away from water. Uses a small depression on the ground lined with grasses and down feathers. Conceals nest with vegetation
  • Young: Female incubates 5-12 whitish eggs for about 3 weeks. Males tend to leave before the eggs hatch. Chicks are precocial, they leave the nest shortly after hatching and can feed themselves. The female will tend to the young until their first flights, which can be between 45-63 days after hatching.

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Female Wigeon By Mdf (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Vocalizations:

Males whistle whew-whew-whew! Females give a low harsh quack or rred growl

Conservation: 

Although populations have risen and fallen over the years, American Wigeons are considered stable. Their breeding range has slowly been extending eastward. They are widely hunted during fall hunting season.

Fun Facts:

  • American Wigeons spend more time in deep water than other marsh ducks.
  • The male’s white forehead has given these ducks the nickname “Baldpate”.
  • American Wigeons have been known to hybridize with the Eurasian Wigeon, a rare visitor to North America. Breeding male Eurasian Wigeons are distinct from Americans because of their dark rufous heads. Female Eurasians have a brown head. Juvenile Americans and Eurasians look almost completely alike, however, Americans have white underwings and Eurasians have gray underwings.

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Male American (left) and Eurasian (right) Wigeons (Image via pinterest)

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.