A welcome sign of spring in northern New England is the return of the Wood Duck to wooded swamps and wetlands. There are seven species of North American ducks that regularly nest in cavities and the Wood Duck is uniquely adapted for doing so. Its slim body allows it to use Pileated Woodpecker cavities for nesting and the acuity of its large eyes allows it to avoid branches while flying through wooded areas. Even so, it still tends to make one look twice to see ducks perched up in a tree!
It’s hard to picture a duck flying straight into a cavity in a tree, but there are several species of waterfowl that do just that in order to incubate their eggs in a relatively safe location. The female Hooded Merganser selects a nesting site in a living or dead tree cavity or in a handmade nest box. Once mating and egg-laying has occurred, the male disappears, leaving his mate to raise and care for their offspring.
Within 24 hours of her eggs hatching, the female calls to her young from the cavity opening or from the water below, encouraging them to leap up to the opening and hurl themselves out into the world. The entire brood departs the nest within a couple of minutes. As soon as they hit the water, the precocial young ducks are swimming, diving and feeding on water boatmen, backswimmers, diving beetles and other aquatic invertebrates.
My apologies to the 50+/- NC readers who responded with great creativity to the latest Mystery Photo! The photographer and I had a miscommunication, and I misdirected readers about the actual mystery you were to solve! I thought the photographer had observed a goose making the two parallel lines in the ice with their feet (nails) as they landed. However, these two lines are actually just cracks in the ice, as many readers guessed (Susan Cloutier was the first to correctly identify them). While Canada Geese do use their feet as well as their wings as brakes to slow themselves down before they land and they do have a hind toe which conceivably could scratch the ice, the landing imprints of the geese (and what I should have asked readers to identify) are actually in the upper half of the photo (see red circle) where the snow has been plowed aside, revealing the darker ice underneath. The presence of a considerable amount of goose droppings confirms the identity of the birds landing on the ice.
Observers often ask how Canada Geese or other waterfowl can stand for long periods of time on frozen lakes and ponds.The legs and feet of waterfowl play an important part in maintaining their body temperature. In the summer, their large, flat feet cool their body by releasing a good deal of heat. In winter, the heat exchange system (counter-current circulation) in a bird’s legs prevents a great deal of body heat loss due to the fact that the warm arterial blood going into the bird’s feet is cooled by the colder blood traveling back to the body in adjacent veins. Constricted blood vessels in their legs further conserves heat. (Photo by Mike Hebb)
If you are fortunate enough to have a beaver pond near you, you should give the lodge more than a cursory glance this time of year. It is common to find Canada Geese nesting on beaver lodges, for obvious reasons – safety from most land predators. While Common ravens have been known to raid Canada Goose nests for eggs and goslings, the overall rate of survival of the goslings of lodge-nesting geese is very high.
A Canadian study showed that ponds with beaver lodges (and therefore Beaver activity which warms the water and thaws the ice) thaw at least 11 days sooner than ponds without Beavers, allowing early access to water for Canada Geese returning for the spring nesting season. Battles between pairs of geese vying for these coveted nesting sites are not uncommon.
Canada Geese have much to thank Beavers for. Not only can geese get an early nesting start on beaver lodges, they have a relatively safe spot to incubate their eggs and raise their young.
Keep your eye out for increasing numbers of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) on open lakes, ponds and rivers. Although these birds can be found in most of New England year-round (some overwinter as far north as ice permits), much of the population overwinters in the Southeast. Hooded Merganser migration northwards begins particularly early in the spring — they often arrive on breeding grounds within days of ice out. (Photo: Hooded Merganser pair, female in foreground)
American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes), found year-round in all parts of New England except for northern Maine, are nearly identical to Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) in size, shape and voice. Both have rounded heads, thick bills, and bulky bodies. Like other dabbling ducks they sit high in the water with their tails high. These two closely related species often keep company with each other and it can be challenging to tell them apart, but it is possible to distinguish them with some certainty.
Most of the year male (drake) Mallards have a distinctive iridescent green head, a white neck ring and a yellow bill. However, the female (hen) Mallard’s plumage is very similar to that of both drake and hen Black Ducks. One of the most dependable ways to tell these two species apart is to look for the dark chocolate-colored body of the Black Duck, which is noticeably darker than the hen Mallard’s. At rest, the Black Duck is a uniform very dark brown from the bottom of its neck to its tail. The hen Mallard is a much lighter brown in this area, and in addition has a pale whitish patch on the belly. The color of the bill can also help with identification — the hen Mallard’s bill is orange and black, whereas the Black Duck’s bill ranges from a dusky yellow (drake) to a drab olive (hen) color. All of these identification clues go out the window when hybrids of these two species are encountered! (Photo: American Black Duck drake (L) and hen (R) )
There is a reason why ducklings remain with their mother for their first month or two of life. It takes 50-70 days before most ducklings can fly, and survival during this period is highly variable, ranging from less than 10 percent to as high as 70 percent. They are at their most vulnerable during this stage. The most common causes of duckling mortality include predation, adverse weather conditions, starvation, disease, and parasites. The mother offers her young a degree of protection from some of these factors while they are under her care.
Predation is arguably the greatest threat to young waterfowl. Ducklings are sought after by nearly every type of predator, including other birds (eagles, hawks, owls, herons, crows), fish (largemouth bass and northern pike), amphibians (bullfrogs), reptiles (snakes and snapping turtles), and mammals (foxes, raccoons, and mink). Their odds for survival increase dramatically when the ducklings obtain the ability to fly. (Photo: female Wood Duck and ducklings)
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One morning several weeks ago, broods of Wood Duck nestlings leaped out of their nest holes onto the ground or into the water beneath their nest trees. After leaving their nests, most traveled long distances (an average of 1 1/4 miles) with their mothers to rearing areas.
The earliest broods to hatch already have their juvenile (or “first basic”) plumage, which will remain through August. Male juvenile Wood Ducks can be distinguished from female juveniles by the two white finger-like projections that go up their cheeks and neck from their throat. The females lack these stripes but have a wider white patch around their eyes. The pictured male juvenile Wood Ducks are between eight and nine weeks old. Very soon their eyes will turn red and they will be able to fly.
Most of the U.S.’s eastern population of Snow Geese has been wintering along Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to South Carolina, and will breed in the subarctic and arctic tundra near the coast. These Snow Geese depart North Carolina and Virginia for Delaware Bay mid- to late February. After resting and refueling at Delaware Bay, they depart and migrate through western Connecticut, the Hudson River, and Lake Champlain throughout March and early April, stopping to rest and refuel along the way at various locations (referred to as staging areas). Most Snow Geese arrive at their Arctic breeding grounds by mid- to late May.
During spring migration, flocks of family groups and individuals migrate both day and night. These flocks consist of anywhere from 35 to 400 birds. Many factors influence the timing and duration of spring migration from year to year, including inconsistencies of weather and the availability of food at stopover sites and on breeding grounds. Snow Geese tend to migrate with southerly or southwesterly winds, high temperature, falling pressure, low humidity, good visibility, and no precipitation. Their northerly progress is closely related to the disappearance of ice and snow – they can feed only after both have melted and perennial vegetation is exposed.
In much of New England Green-winged Teals, our smallest dabbling (feed mainly on the surface rather than diving) ducks, are present either during the breeding season, or over the winter, but most of Vermont and New Hampshire have to settle for glimpses during spring and fall migration. Often these ducks stop to rest and refuel on shallow ponds, marshes and flooded fields. While occasionally one or two are spotted amongst a group of mallards, typically they are found in small groups that often congregate in large flocks.
The pictured male is soon to complete its fall “prealternate molt,” in which all body feathers except the innermost feathers of wing are replaced. When finished, he will sport brilliant cinnamon and green head feathers as part of his alternate, or breeding, plumage. Next July he will molt these feathers and acquire a duller basic, or non-breeding, plumage. (Photo by Jeannie Killam)
Most ducks shed their body feathers twice each year. Nearly all drakes lose their bright plumage after mating, and for a few weeks resemble females. This hen-like appearance is called the eclipse plumage and provides drakes with the ability to camouflage themselves. The necessity for waterfowl not to be seen by predators at this time is great, for this is when ducks undergo a “simultaneous” wing molt – losing all their wing feathers at the same time. It takes a month or so to replace these feathers, and during this time they are completely flightless. As soon as drakes can fly again in late summer, they begin a second molt and gradually develop their breeding plumage as fall progresses.
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Hooded mergansers are present in most of the Northeast year round where there is open water, but many move south and southwest in winter. Some actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. Their numbers swell in March and April, when migrants are passing through as well as returning. Often within days of when the ice goes out, this smallest (and arguably the most beautiful) of the three North American merganser species appears.
The courtship ritual of hooded mergansers takes place in groups of one or more females and several males. The males raise their crests, expanding the white patch, and engage in behavior known as head-throwing. They jerk their heads backwards until it touches their backs, while giving a frog-like croak. Females court by bobbing their heads and giving a hoarse quack.
Female breeding hooded mergansers select suitable cavities in both live and dead trees in which to nest. Stumps and snags near or in forested wetlands are their preferred nesting sites. Nest boxes are also used by this species, with those over or near water being the most sought after. After a month or a little more, the eggs hatch and downy, day-old chicks jump to the water (or ground) below, in response to their mother’s vocal urging.
There is so much to love about Buffleheads. First and foremost, they are almost exclusively monogamous – one of the few ducks that often keeps the same mate for several years. They are relatively tiny – our smallest “diving” duck. (Ducks are divided into “diving” and “dabbling” ducks, according to their method of feeding.) So small are they that these cavity-nesting birds can fit in and often choose Northern Flicker holes in which to raise their young. We typically only see them during their nocturnal spring and fall migration to and from their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of western Canada and Alaska, when they rest and refuel on ponds and lakes during the day. If you chance upon a pair when the sun is out, be sure to notice the striking purple and green iridescent head feathers of the male (on right).
Eagles obtain food mainly in three ways — by direct capture, scavenging for carrion and stealing food from other birds and mammals. When securing their own live prey, they hunt from perches or soar over suitable habitat, taking most prey on the wing. Bald eagles’ preferred food is live fish, but they are opportunistic foragers that select prey based on availability. Twenty studies from across their range found that the composition of bald eagle diets averaged the following: fish-56%; birds-28%; mammals-14%; and other 2%.
In addition to capturing live prey, eagles rely heavily on fish, bird and mammal carrion, especially during the winter. Ice fishermen’s leftover bait and/or rejected catches, roadkills and deer that have slipped and died on ice-covered ponds and lakes are three heavily-used sources of food at this time of year. If the carrion is small enough, it is often carried to a perch (see opossum in photo) where it is inconspicuously consumed. Larger carrion, such as white-tailed deer, salmon and waterfowl, that are too big to carry off, are eaten on site and repeatedly visited until consumed.
Hooded 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.
You 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.
In 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.
Hooded 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.
During 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.
Common 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.
Snow 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.
Within 24 hours of hatching, Hooded Merganser ducklings leap anywhere from 8 -90 feet from their arboreal cavity nest down to their mother, who is calling to them from the water below. Capable of swimming and diving right away, the ducklings begin feeding themselves immediately. Weighing little more than an ounce, they mostly eat insects, including backswimmers, water boatmen and diving beetles. Eventually, as the ducklings grow, they work their way up to fish and crustaceans — particularly crayfish, such as the pictured merganser has caught. In addition to its size, the lack of a real “hood” indicates that this Hooded Merganser is a youngster.
After having spent a month or so incubating her eggs, the mallard hen begins to hear her ducklings vocalizing from inside their eggs, roughly 24 hours before they start to hatch. She responds with quiet calls, and begins turning the eggs frequently. Within 36 hours the ducklings crack open (“pip”) their eggs with the help of an egg tooth that is lost soon after they hatch. The down of the ducklings dries within 12 hours and often the morning after her young hatch, the hen leads them to water (not necessarily the closest water to the nest). She encourages them to follow her by quacking up to 200 times a minute as they travel over land to their watery destination. The ducklings can feed on their own, consuming mostly invertebrates and seeds. Once in the water, if the ducklings start to scatter, the mother can be heard repeatedly and softly quacking to her brood to gather them around her. She will continue to provide them with cover and warmth for the next couple of weeks, especially at night and during cold weather.