As we near Thanksgiving, many new signs point to a change in seasons.
However according to longtime bird-watcher and member of the Lycoming Audubon Society Gary Metzger, there’s no better introduction to the early holiday slate than the wave of migratory birds moving through our region — including a variety of duck species.
“You know the passing of the season is marked by the coming and going of the birds. In the late fall, you have all of these exotic birds coming through, landing and overnighting on the water. You get this wave of birds in the fall, and then in the spring, you get the wave going the other way,” he said. “It’s like a wonderful seasonal clock that you can follow just by keeping your eyes open for the birds.”
Differences in ducks
When it comes to duck species that frequent the region this time of year, the most common category includes those considered dabbling or puddle ducks.
These would include species such as Mallards and black ducks, blue- and green-winged teal, American wigeon, Northern pintail and sometimes Northern shovelers, according to longtime outdoor educator Jon Beam of the Montour Preserve.
“These are typical surface feeders. You see them swimming around in more shallow areas. They tilt their head down underwater and sometimes tip up, so that their tail goes straight up and their head’s straight down,” he said. “They’re looking for food such as plants and insects and mollusks. Things like that.”
Beam added that puddle ducks, when frightened, typically leap up into the air and take off.
“They also have a brightly colored patch on their wings called a speculum,” he said.
More common during migration periods — such as the one we’re in currently — diving ducks can appear throughout the region.
“These are typically more heavy-bodied ducks with their legs located farther back on their bodies,” Beam said. “They can be very awkward on land, but very streamlined when swimming underwater.”
When scared, diving ducks typically make a “running start” across the top of the water until they get up in the air.
Diving duck species include canvasbacks, redheads, ringneck, and both the greater and lesser scaup.
Every once in a while, depending on weather conditions, Beam has seen sea ducks at the Montour Preserve.
“These are stocky, short-necked ducks that tend to be in flocks of 10 to maybe 30 or 40, although once in a while we get a single individual,” he said.
These include longtail ducks — “which have a very long, pointy tail,” Beam said — common goldeneye, buffleheads and scoters on rare occasions.
Another category of waterfowl that are related to ducks is mergansers.
“They tend to have long, thin serrated beaks,” said Beam. “In flight, they have very pointed wings. And they — when they take off — fly very low to the water until they get up enough speed and take off up into the air.”
Common mergansers, which can be found on Lake Chillisquaque right now, are considered one of the early arrivers, starting in late September and staying at the lake typically until it freezes over. Common mergansers do nest in the region.
“In addition to common, we also sometimes see red-breasted mergansers, and we do get hooded mergansers,” Beam said.
Yet another type of duck that can be found in the region are considered stiff-tailed ducks.
“The only species of this type of duck I believe we get in this region is the ruddy duck. They are little ducks with fairly large heads compared to the size of their bodies,” he said. “They have fairly wide bills and their tail feathers are very stiff and often cocked up at either 90- or 45-degree angles.”
Ruddy ducks, as mergansers, are also good divers.
“Mergansers dive down to catch fish, while the ruddy ducks may go after some small fish, but also collect plant material,” said Beam. “They use that stiff tail as a rudder underwater.”
The types of food various ducks eat vary on the species, Beam admitted.
“Diving ducks are going to be out on deeper waters, so they are going after things like fish, whereas the dabblers are better in shallower waters,” he said. “They will be feeding on plants and things like mollusks.”
Adult ducks on the water fear very few predators outside of the bald eagle, Beam said, but young ducks can fall prey to a variety of species.
“Things like bass, pike and muskies, of course,” he said. “Minks are also a possibility.”
Wood ducks are one of the most unique ducks to Beam.
“They nest in hollow trees, and that can be anywhere between 15 and 30 feet above the ground,” he said. “A few hours after the young are born, mom coaxes them out of that hollow tree and they can’t fly at that point. They’re little balls of fluff. They jump, and because they are balls of fluff, it kind of slows their descent and they bounce when they hit the ground. When they are all out, mom takes them onto the water where they are all safe.”
The merganser’s beak is also fascinating to Beam.
“The bill is serrated, so bottom and top are like saw teeth and there is a little hook on the end,” he said. “It helps them to grab and hold onto a fish when they are underwater.”
Beyond duck species, other common migrating waterfowl include Canada geese, snow geese and common loons.
“When we get snow geese, oftentimes it can be anywhere between a couple hundred to a couple thousand,” Beam said. “People don’t always notice them on the water because they’re often out feeding in fields. When they fly, they kind of come up in a wave and circle around and might take a couple passes before they all settle down again. When the sun hits those white bodies, they just sparkle in the sunlight. It’s pretty amazing to see.”
One of the biggest issues facing duck species and other migratory waterfowl both in the region and across the country, according to Metzger, is a changing climate.
“Birds that migrate are used to leaving at a particular time. As the climate is changing, it impacts and changes the times they need to move in order to satisfy various things they need to do to survive,” he said.
In our watershed drought isn’t usually a big deal, but the past dry summer and lower-than-normal water table has impacted various species, Metzger added.
“Many ducks have to be near a body of water,” he said. “Some ducks breed in wetlands or ponds, as well as rivers and streams, and in severe drought situations, that can be a problem.”
Habitat concerns affect all bird species, especially duck species such as the wood duck that depend on large, mature yet hollow trees close enough to the water so that ducklings can safely get from the tree to their new homes.
“Riparian woodland areas are not as common as they were,” Metzger said. “Thankfully, wood ducks are holding their own because so many conservation groups provide nest boxes for them.”
Pollution concerns also continue to be a threat, although Metzger personally has seen improvement in this area thanks to efforts by various nonprofits.
“The reason the ducks that we have are doing as well as they have done a pretty good job in cleaning up a lot of our waterways,” he said. “The West Branch, for example, is generally swimmable and fishable and a good place for waterfowl thanks in large part to the Pennsylvania Clean Streams law and the protections that it has afforded to these streams.”
Drawn to ducks
Metzger admits there are numerous reasons he finds various duck species so fascinating.
“Some of them we love because they are just so darn cute. One of our members just posted on the listserv that the first four buffleheads had just shown up,” he said. “Buffleheads are like teacups in size. They’re a brilliant black and white, and they have this bulb-like feathered head, and they are just cute.
“Some of the species are just so colorful and beautiful. They’re like pieces of art swimming around our watershed.”