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.

hybrid duck 1
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).

puff duck and friend 1
Puff Duck and friend (Image by BirdNation)

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

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.

male eclipse plumage
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.

Wood_duck_eclipse
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!

2017 Birding Vacation! Part 1

Hi friends! Sorry I disappeared for a little bit, but I have a good reason… Dave and I went on a birding vacation! We spent the weekend in Maryland and Delaware hiking and looking for new birds.

We had two major stops planned for our day in Maryland. In the afternoon we drove into Baltimore to explore the National Aquarium. It happened to be 90 degrees that day, so it was the perfect escape from the heat. There were some birds in the aquarium: an alcid (auk) exhibit featuring Atlantic Puffins, Black Guillemots, and Razorbills,;and a rainforest exhibit with a variety of birds flying around. But the main highlight of our day was spending the morning at the Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton, Maryland.

Pickering Creek Audubon Center is a 400-acre park on an undeveloped tributary of the Wye River. In 1981, George Olds and Margaret Strahl, who were brother and sister, donated Heigh-Ho Farm to the Chesapeake Audubon Society. The property later became Pickering Creek Audubon Center. The farmhouse and adjacent builds are still there and the first thing you see when you enter the park. Pickering Creek is hidden in a quiet rural area, and features fresh water wetlands, a meadow, and a mature hardwood forest. In the forest you can visit the house of Gilbert Byron, the American author and poet who lived on the property for 45 years.

Our adventure began on the Pond Loop Trail behind the farm. The trail was densely lined with trees and had numerous Wood Duck and Bluebird nest boxes. We were hearing a lot of birds but they were hard to spot through all the leaves. Some of the birds around the pond included Mourning Doves, Common Yellowthroats, Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, and Indigo Buntings.

IMG_3172
Pond at Pickering Creek (Image by BirdNation)

We moved on to the Wetlands Trail. There are 2 observation decks that overlook a few small pools. The Wetlands Trail is where we saw most of our Wood Duck observations. Pickering Creek had numerous small ponds and plenty of trees/nest boxes, so it was no wonder that we saw at least 18 Wood Ducks (the most we’ve ever seen on a trip). There were even a few chicks swimming around with their mom. Other birds in the wetlands included Tree Swallows, an Osprey, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Mallards, Blue Gray Gnatcatchers, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  We even found a raccoon sleeping in a tree with his little ear sticking out :-).

From the beginning of the hike we were seeing a bright yellow bird fly around over head. It was very vocal, had dull upperparts, white eyerings, and black on its face. It flew deep into the thickets being loud. We kept trying to get a good look at it, but were continually missing it. It wasn’t until towards the end of the Wetlands Trail when this mystery bird landed at the top of a nearby tree and sang that we got a good look at it. It’s song was quite unusual. It croaked, rattled, gurgled, whistled, and made all sorts of jumbled sounds. We later learn that we were watching a Yellow-breasted Chat. Yellow-breasted Chats are part of the Wood Warbler family, but seems like more of a mix between a warbler and a tanager. It’s the largest warbler, with a longer tail, a heavy bill, and a more varied repertoire of songs. It was fascinating to watch him sing from the treetops.

IMG_3202
Yellow-breasted Chat (Image by David Horowitz)

The final trail we took was the Farm to Bay trail, which leads out to part of the creek. Along the way we found Eastern Wood-Pewees, woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, and our first White-eyed Vireo (although we wouldn’t find that out until the next day). Overall we saw 33 species during our walk.

We had a really lovely morning exploring Pickering Creek Audubon Center. If you ever happen to be in Eastern Maryland and want a quiet, rural environment, Pickering Creek is the way to go. You can check out their website at pickeringcreek.audubon.org.It was the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I talk about our birding day in Delaware!

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.

IMG_2457
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.
800px-Brautentenpaar_2008-03-21_072
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!
6a010534b8668f970c013488b52586970c-800wi
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!

 

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.