Latest For the Birds column: Ducks are finally here

Photo by Chris Bosak Hooded Mergansers swim in a small unfrozen section of water at Selleck's/Dunlap in Darien, Conn., in Feb. 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Hooded Mergansers swim in a small unfrozen section of water at Selleck’s/Dunlap in Darien, Conn., in Feb. 2014.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.

For me, “duck season” starts with the first sighting of something other than a mallard, wood duck or black duck.

This year it started in late August when I saw a lone hooded merganser in the small pond at the end of the trail that runs through my backyard. I’m not sure if it was an early migrating duck or if its territory is nearby, but it certainly marked an early start to duck watching season for me.

Of course, several weeks passed before my next duck sighting, but now it appears that duck season is finally here for real. The weather certainly is fitting for duck season. The other day, I stood on the shores of a lake watching a flock of common mergansers. The temperature was in the low 30s and a whipping, cold wind stung my ears. In other words, things could have been worse.

The “typical” start to duck-watching season goes something like this: The leaves change colors and a few hooded mergansers and ring-necked ducks show up on area lakes and ponds. Large flocks of common mergansers congregate on larger lakes and reservoirs.

As the season progresses, small ponds attract goodies such as green-winged teal, gadwall and American wigeon. Larger lakes attract more and more common mergansers as well as bufflehead and a goldeneye or two.

Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean follow a somewhat predictable schedule as well, with brant showing up rather early, followed by beauties such as common and red-throated loons, grebes, goldeneye, long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers and scaup. Eider are common on the ocean, but not so much on the Sound.

Those are the typical and predictable sightings. Not that those species aren’t exciting to see, but you know they are coming. For that matter, wood ducks and black ducks are fine sightings as well, but they are year-round residents and somewhat predictable as well.

But duck season in New England is about much more than the species you know are going to show up. It’s also about the surprise fowl. A few years ago, a lone male redhead hung out with a flock of ring-necked ducks at a pond I visited in southern New England. Redheads may be seen in large numbers along the Great Lakes of the Midwest, but they are somewhat rare in New England.

Last year, while driving past a small pond, I looked over and noticed a northern pintail drake at the pond’s edge. Talk about a striking bird. This particular pintail was in with a small flock of mallards. It pays to look closely at large flocks of common birds. Something different may be lurking. A good example of that are the odd European wigeon mixed in with a large flock of American wigeon.

Northern shovelers, with their oversized Daffy Duck bill, show up on occasion in New England as well. It’s safe to say several shovelers will show up in our area throughout the course of a duck season (roughly October through March), but where and when is the question.

Even the typical species can surprise you sometimes. Similar to the pintail, I once saw a lone female red-breasted merganser mixed in with a flock of mallard. It was an unlikely grouping as mergansers are diving ducks and mallards are dabblers. Mallards are typically seen in sheltered waters and red-breasted mergansers usually favor large, open waters.

The unusual sightings are recorded on bird lists and make for great stories. Those are the sightings that stick out in my mind as well. But, if a trip to the lake yields only hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks and gadwall, I’m more than OK with that, too.

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