An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Waterfowl

Hooded Merganser Ducklings on the Water

6-17 hooded mergansers IMG_4318Hooded Merganser ducklings typically leap from their cavity nests in trees within twenty-four hours of hatching. Long claws on their feet aid them in climbing up to the opening of the cavity in order to join their mother who is calling from below. The ducklings feed themselves (aquatic insects and invertebrates) from day one, and are capable of shallow dives as soon as they leave their nest. The mother (who has been their sole caretaker since she started incubating the eggs) often moves her brood downstream to larger lakes, rivers and bays from smaller streams and ponds near the nest site. Eventually she leaves her young, anywhere from a month or two after they hatch, often before they can fly.

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Wood Ducks Return to Breeding Grounds

4-13-15  wood ducks 284You can find waterfowl in almost every open body of water, from puddles to ponds, at this time of year. Among these migrating waterfowl are colorful Wood Ducks returning to northern New England to breed, having already formed mating pairs. Their courtship displays enable them to maintain this pair bond. The most common display involves the male’s turning the back of his head towards the female as he swims in front of her while holding his wings and tail high. Chin-lifting, feather-shaking, wing-preening, neck-stretching and bill-jerking are just some of the displays that occur during Wood Duck courtship.

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Early Nesting Hooded Mergansers Seeking Tree Cavities

4-6-15  hooded merganser, male 367In northern New England you are most likely to see Hooded Mergansers in the spring and fall when they are migrating to and from their breeding grounds in northern Canada (some nest in New England, as well). Hooded Mergansers tend to arrive in their breeding areas as soon as the ice starts to melt, and have been known to start laying eggs in March in Massachusetts and April in Vermont. Often some of the earliest eggs laid in a nest will freeze and crack and never hatch.

Hooded Mergansers are cavity nesters, frequently choosing trees that are close to ponds, marshes, swamps or streams. They compete with Wood Ducks for nest boxes put out by humans, and females of both species may lay eggs in the same nest, with one or the other incubating the eggs. Sometimes the duck that initiated the nest does the incubation, but more often the hen laying the majority of the eggs will do so. Because both species have the same incubation period, all the eggs hatch at the same time.

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Hooded Mergansers Seek Open Water

hooded merg in snow 050Hooded Mergansers are short-distance migrants that can be found in eastern North America year round where ponds and rivers remain open and slow-moving fish, insects and crayfish are plentiful. Some individuals migrate south and southwest in winter — 80% of birds banded in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York were recovered in coastal Atlantic states from New Jersey to Florida. A smaller number actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. While numbers swell in March/April and November in northern New England due to migration, if there is open water you may well see Hooded Mergansers this far north throughout the winter.

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Canada Geese Switch Diet to Berries & Grains

12-4-14  Canada geese2 IMG_5615During migration and throughout the winter, Canada Geese are highly gregarious, often gathering and feeding in flocks that consist of over a thousand geese. Almost exclusively herbivorous, they are efficient grazers, having serrations on their stout, flat bills. During summer they feed primarily on grasses and sedges. Considered a nuisance by many people with large lawns Canada Geese are attracted to these lawns not only because they can digest grass, but also because they have an unobstructed view that allows them to detect approaching predators. During and following migration, berries (especially blueberries) and agricultural grains including sorghum, corn and winter wheat make up most of their diet. When you see them in cornfields, they are feeding on fallen kernels as well as corn still on dry cobs — they are very good at removing the kernels.

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Common Mergansers Migrating

11-14-14  common mergansers 120Common Mergansers are hardy, fish-eating, cavity-nesting ducks that can be found in New England year round, as they winter as far north as open water allows. However, the birds we see in the winter on large bodies of water most likely are not the same birds that breed here. All North American populations of Common Mergansers migrate, generally short to intermediate distances. Populations near the coast move only short distances, while more interior birds migrate farther. Heavier birds and adult males seem to tolerate colder winter temperatures and remain farther north than immature birds. They can often be seen on large lakes and rivers, as well as the coast, where they form small groups that may gather into large numbers at favored sites.

Migrating Common Mergansers tend to leave late in the fall (this week marks the peak of their fall migration), making them often the last waterfowl migrants to head south. Common Mergansers typically migrate over land at night, and along seacoasts or major river systems by day. In the spring, adult males return north first as soon as open water is available, followed by females a few weeks later. (Photo: 2 juvenile Common Mergansers) Thanks to canoe-steadying Sadie Richards for making it possible for me to take this photograph.

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Snow Geese Migrating

10-22-14 snow geese IMG_4105Snow Goose migration peaks from mid- to late October, as they travel from their breeding grounds on the western shores of Greenland and most of the eastern Canadian Arctic down the St. Lawrence Seaway to their coastal wintering areas (from Massachusetts down into North and South Carolina). In years past, the Dead Creek WMA, a 3,000 acre waterfowl refuge at the southern end of Lake Champlain in Vermont, used to be a primary staging area, where thousands of Snow Geese would stop and refuel in agricultural corn and grain fields on their way south. The sky would literally turn white with landing geese. Unfortunately for Vermonters, while some Snow Geese still stop over at Dead Creek, many now migrate further west, down through New York state, where apparently there is a more abundant supply of grain to feed on along the way.

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