|3/27/2013 1:39:00 PM|
Looking at Ducks-
by Don ReimerPerched in tall treetops above my driveway, two male cardinals engage in a morning singing session: "Cheeeer! cheeeer! Tu, tu, tu, tu." They are preparing for spring. Chickadees and House Finches also vocalize nearby. Male Woodcocks have arrived to "sky dance" above our alder-edged fields, and territorial Red-Wing Blackbirds are staking out partially frozen cattail patches.
The major surge of neo-tropical migrants must wait until May, but meanwhile we have plenty of springtime duck action to occupy our time. Now that Weskeag Marsh is mostly free of winter ice, it provides a welcome stopover for northbound waterfowl. All told, it is possible to tally 30 species of ducks across Maine's ocean, lake and marsh habitats throughout the calendar year.
Waterfowl populations are constantly shifting with the seasons. While a good number of species will nest locally, others will proceed north and west. Flocks of Long-tailed Ducks, Buffleheads and the handsome Barrow's Goldeneye were merely winter residents of our bays and estuaries. Other ducks, such as Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls, make brief cameo appearances in the midcoast. In recent years it seems that the period of waterfowl migration has contracted a bit, as winter ice melts at an accelerated pace and the birds take wing.
Ducks come in a range of shapes and body sizes based on their foraging style and food-gathering techniques. There are several subfamilies of ducks, but let's focus on two basic categories: dabbling and diving ducks.
The dabbling ducks are represented by such familiar species as Mallards and Black Ducks. Dabblers tend to tilt forward, pointing their tail into the air to feed on aquatic plants or forage near the shore for seeds and insects. Also known as "puddle ducks," these are agile fliers that can leap into immediate flight without taxiing. Equipped with a flat, broad bill, they float higher in the water than the diving ducks.
If we would study and learn the dabbling clan, the Mallard is a useful species for comparison. For example, Pintails, Wigeon and Teal are all smaller than Mallards. These days Mallard couples have already paired up for the nesting season, swimming close together or lounging side by side. You may notice some earnest head-bobbing behavior as courtship progresses. For waterfowl, pair formation develops over the winter period.
As their name implies, diving ducks pursue their prey under the water. Propulsion is accomplished by webbed feet located far back on the body. As a result, diving ducks are somewhat awkward on land. Certain diving species, such as the mergansers, use both their wings and feet to swim. Birds in the diving group are somewhat chunky, with broad, blunt-tipped wings that require faster wing-beats. They must patter along the water's surface for take-off.
Rockland Harbor is a good place to observe rafts of Common Eider Ducks, rugged sea ducks that nest on our offshore islands. A late fall and winter game species, eiders are most famous for their insulative downy feathers. In Iceland, farmers place nesting boxes on the ground in their seaside fields. Built from weathered boards, these partitioned boxes are accepted by female eiders to incubate their egg clutches.
Every few days, the farmers visit these sites to gently reach beneath the incubating birds and remove a small quantity of down. After the fact, the female eider plucks out a few downy breast feathers to replenish the warm lining of her nest. Iceland's farmers have found a sustainable way to harvest feather down without causing drastic or permanent harm to its natural donors.
Posted: Friday, May 10, 2013
Article comment by:
I spotted a Red-Bellied Woodpecker checking out two small apple trees in my front yard this morning.
I checked my National Geographic Field Guide third ed., 1989) which mentions that they are rare in Maine and Maritimes.
Perhaps in the past 14 years they are more common
here in Maine. This was my first time spotting one and it was a gruel amazing sight.
Your column is always helpful and informative.
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