For the Birds: Surprises big and small

Surprises come in all sizes in birdwatching.

Sometimes, or more accurately, rarely, a big surprise happens. You look out at your feeder and a bird you hadn’t seen in years is perched enjoying a meal. Or you are taking a winter stroll on a New England beach and notice a snowy owl resting in the distance.

The other day, I was treated to a few surprises on a much smaller magnitude. They came at a small park with a tiny pond in suburbia that typically has your normal birds. Crows and sparrows are the main birds with a few mallards in the pond.

On this particular day, however, things were a little different. 

I normally drive right past the park without stopping or even casting a glance toward the pond, but something big and white caught my eye as being out of the ordinary. It was a great egret standing near the edge of the water. It wasn’t right at the edge where you would typically see an egret but rather 10 to 15 feet into the grass away from the pond. A sizable flock of Canada geese roamed around the grass near the egret.

As I watched the egret, I took a closer look at the ducks to see how the mallards were progressing with their molt. To my surprise, they weren’t mallards at all but wood ducks. They were broken into two groups of five or six each. One group swam around the middle of the pond and the other group hugged the heavily vegetated back shoreline. 

The wood ducks were in an interesting phase of their molt. The males were no longer (or not yet, depending on your perspective) in their splendid breeding plumage. Rather, they more resembled the females with drab, camouflaged plumage. In a few weeks, they will be back in their splendid breeding plumage. 

A great egret at an inland pond in New England is certainly not something to post on any rare bird alert, but it was nice to see the tall wader just the same. Great egrets are more commonly found in the region along the coast or around brackish waters. Just like a black-crowned night heron sighting, I always find it interesting to find a great egret on a freshwater pond. Finding a snowy egret, the great egret’s smaller cousin, on a freshwater pond would be a much rarer occurrence as they generally stick to the coast. 

One of the nice things about birdwatching is that you never really know what the day will hold. Some days you’re disappointed with the number of birds, and sometimes you are thrilled with what you see. I’m not saying a great egret and a dozen wood ducks is anything to write home about, but on this day, the signings certainly lifted my spirits.

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