For the Birds: March is a good time for ducks

Digiscoped photo of a hooded merganser.

March is a good time to look for ducks, assuming, of course, there is some open water.

I took a short drive the other day to a large reservoir and found that the water was still largely frozen. There were plenty of open spots, however, and one, in particular, caught my attention. I saw mallards from a distance and zeroed in to see if anything else was lurking there.

The mallards I had seen were not mallards at all but a pair of American black ducks. Male and female black ducks resemble female mallards from a distance with their overall bland coloring and similar size and shape. A closer look revealed the black duck’s darker coloration. Male black ducks also have a yellow bill, similar to a male mallard’s bill. The females of both species have duller bills.

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For the Birds: Ice sends the ducks south

Photo by Chris Bosak
Red-breasted mergansers may be seen throughout winter on the ocean or Long Island Sound.

There are always two ways to look at something.

I don’t remember what it was advertising, but I recall an old television commercial wherein one guy says: “Camping? I hate camping. There’s nobody around.”

The next guy on camera, within the same friend group of the first guy but unaware of what he said, says: “Camping? I love camping. There’s nobody around.”

I guess it all depends on your personal preferences and motives.

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For the Birds: Birding New Year’s resolutions

Photo by Chris Bosak A black duck hides in the grasses near a pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

I dreaded looking it up, but as it turns out, there was nothing to dread.

Let me explain.

There are a handful of regular birding columns that I write every year about this time. One is on Christmas gifts for the birdwatcher, one is about the Christmas Bird Count, one is on my birding highlights of the year, and one is on my New Year’s resolutions for the coming year.

It is the resolution column that I dread looking back on. There are sure to be many failures, and I just hope there are a few successes to go along with it.

I was surprised when I looked up last year’s resolution column. As it turns out, I didn’t write one last year after all. Maybe there was too much going on, maybe I figured I wouldn’t stick to the resolutions anyway, or maybe COVID’s first Christmas had me so down I just couldn’t bring myself to write a forward-thinking, optimistic column.

Well, COVID is still with us and wreaking havoc on another holiday season, but I am not going to let it win this year. So here’s my latest birding New Year’s resolution column.

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Christmas Bird Count photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern shoveler swims on the Norwalk River in New England, December 2020.

It was a gray day that turned into a snowy day that turned into a misty, gray day. The weather never fails to be part of the story of a Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in New England. Yesterday (Sunday) was the annual CBC in my area and, as usual, I covered the Norwalk (Conn.) coastline and parts inland with Frank Mantlik, one of Connecticut”s top birders. We tallied 61 species, which will be combined with the other birds spotted by the Count’s other teams. Highlights included northern shoveler, northern pintail, prairie warbler, pine warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, northern harrier, merlin and horned lark. Full story coming in my For the Birds column. In the meantime, here’s what the Christmas Bird Count is all about.

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-tailed hawk perches on the top of a pine tree in New England, December 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A prairie warbler perches on a cement barrier at a waste water treatment center in New England, December 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A northern pintail drake swims in a pool of water with Canada geese in New England, December 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A northern shoveler swims on the Norwalk River in New England, December 2020.

For the Birds: It’s duck-watching season

Photo by Chris Bosak A female common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.

The recent stretch of beautiful weather aside, November can be a tough month for birdwatchers.

Frigid temperatures, cold rain and even some snow has many of us longing for the more pleasing fall weather of September and October. Most of the migrants, such as hawks and songbirds, are gone by November. The last of the leaves have fallen off the trees, except for a few hangers-on, erasing most of the color from the landscape. With most of the flowers long gone too, brownish-gray tree trunks and dark green foliage of evergreens dominate the landscape.

Birders, however, are eternal optimists and always find bright spots. For me, November means that the waterfowl migration has begun in earnest. It starts slowly in October and hits its stride in November. Ducks, as I have written for years, are my favorite type of bird to watch, so I never dread November.

My first duck migration sighting of the year came a few weeks ago when I spotted four male hooded mergansers swimming away from the shoreline as I approached a neighborhood pond. It was a beautiful thing to see and the first of many similar sightings that will occur for the next several months.

I received an email last week from Amy, who wrote that she had seen a flock of more than 70 common mergansers on Childs Bog in Harrisville.

Common mergansers often form huge flocks and may be seen throughout late fall and winter on our lakes and large ponds. Smaller flocks and individual mergansers are often seen as well, including on smaller ponds and rivers.

The merganser family, which also includes the red-breasted merganser, is an interesting family to study in New England. They are divers, meaning they dive underwater for their food as opposed to dabbling, and they have serrated bills to keep the food from slipping away as they surface.

Mergansers, especially common mergansers, are extremely wary, at least in my experience. Occasionally, I have come across a slightly less timid hooded merganser, but I have yet to find a common merganser that is not ultra-wary.

Of course, the merganser family just scratches the surface of all the ducks we will see passing through New England for the next several months. Bodies of fresh water will attract a different variety than salt water. There are some species that will readily go to fresh, brackish or salt water, but many species have a preference. Loons are interesting in that they breed on large freshwater bodies of water but are mostly found on salt or brackish water in the winter. Long Island Sound off the coast of Rhode Island and Connecticut is an excellent place to find common and red-throated loons in the winter. They are not the flashy birds that they are in the summer but rather a much more dull-colored version of themselves. They are still a thrill to see regardless of what plumage they are sporting.

With the duck season just picking up pace now, there will be plenty to write about in the next several months. I look forward to sharing my experiences. As always, feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you are seeing as well.

For the Birds: Ducks faring well in midst of bad news

Photo by Chris Bosak
Hooded mergansers in New England.

I have written extensively about the recent study that shows bird populations in North America have dropped by 29 percent over the last 50 years. While the news overall is concerning, the study did reveal some bright spots.

One piece of good news is that ducks appear to be increasing. Waterfowl are a favorite bird type of mine so this news was heartening. Give me a cool late autumn day, a large pond, a spotting scope and ducks swimming all around, and I’m as happy as a lark.

The duck population increase, in large part, is credited to wetland conservation efforts, much of which was and continues to be paid for by hunters. While this has worked exceptionally well for ducks, it hasn’t worked out quite as well for rails and other marsh birds. There is still work to be done in that area.

But let’s stay positive for this column. Preserving wetlands has led to increased duck numbers. No one can say more ducks is a bad thing.

It also stresses the importance of land conservation as a powerful tool in preserving our birds and other animals. While hunters, through the purchase of stamps and other fees, have contributed mightily to this effort, conserving land is something easily done by anyone. Support your local land trust or other conservation organization Continue reading

Merganser mania briefly revisited

Photo by Chris Bosak A female common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.

When I posted last week about “Merganser mania,” I had photos of all three mergansers that occur in New England. I had males and females represented, with the lone exception of female common merganser. Well, I happened upon this lady the other day and figured I’d complete the circle. I’ve added her to the original post, which may be found here.

For the Birds: Merganser mania

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.

Last week, I wrote about seeing three common mergansers on a small pond by a busy shopping mall. Mergansers are typically wary and I was surprised to see the fowl there.

The next day, I drove past Candlewood Lake — a large man-made body of water in southwestern Connecticut — and saw literally thousands upon thousands of common mergansers. The lake was still about half frozen and many of the unfrozen portions were covered with mergansers. Some of the mergansers used the icy edges as a resting spot; others swam in the rippling water.

That setting seemed to me to be a more appropriate spot for common mergansers than the mall-area one. It got me to thinking about the merganser family and their water preferences.

We have three types of mergansers in New England: common, hooded and red-breasted. Generally speaking, they all have different water preferences.

Common mergansers are usually spotted on large, freshwater lakes and rivers. Hooded mergansers favor smaller bodies of water and may be found on fresh or brackish water. Red-breasted mergansers may be found on large bodies of fresh, brackish or salt water.

I have yet to see all three mergansers sharing a common body of water, but I have seen hooded and commons together, and hooded and red-breasted mergansers together. All three are generally wary in nature. From my own observations, I find the common to be the most wary and hooded the most brave.

The hooded merganser is the oddball among them in terms of appearance. They are small ducks and the males are handsomely adorned with pewter sides, black backs and black-and-white heads and chests. Their heads are usually fanned to display a large white patch, but can also be flatted to show just a sliver of white. Female hoodeds are similar in size to the male but are duller in color and design.

Male common and red-breasted mergansers are similar in general appearance with dark green heads, red bills, large white bodies and black backs. There are obvious differences between them, too. The common is much larger and smoother looking. Red-breasted merganser males have spiky “haircuts,” light red breasts and slightly darker sides.

The females are slightly more difficult to differentiate. Female commons are larger, brighter and have a dark rusty head with a funky haircut. Female red-breasted mergansers have a funky haircut, too, but are smaller, darker and have duller, brownish heads.

All three merganser varieties have serrated bills for holding onto fish and other wiggly prey. Those bills have earned the family the nickname sawbill.

Ducks are one of my favorite types of birds to watch and mergansers are my favorite family of fowl. So far the spring migration has been a merganser bonanza. I hope it continues.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak A female common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A female Red-breasted Merganser swims in Norwalk Harbor in this March 2014 photo.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Male red-breasted merganser.

For the Birds: Mergansers are back

Photo by Chris Bosak A common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.

I haven’t written about ducks in a long time. I used to write about them often because waterfowl are arguably my favorite type of bird to watch.

My budding interest in birdwatching became an obsession when I discovered a huge flock of common mergansers on Powder Mill Pond. The number of birds in the flock and the birds’ size and beauty fascinated me. I can’t believe that happened back in the 1990s. Time sure flies.

I’ve been a huge fan of ducks, especially mergansers, ever since. I have canoed hundreds of miles, spent hours behind blinds in swampy areas, and stood on many shorelines with my eye pressed against a spotting scope in search of ducks.

But for whatever reason, I just haven’t written about ducks lately. I guess none of my recent waterfowl experiences have captivated me enough to do so.

That is until the other day, when I saw a few common mergansers in a very unlikely place. Common mergansers typically favor large freshwater bodies, such as lakes, large ponds or wide rivers. Every so often, however, they may be spotted on much smaller bodies of water.

Not only was my recent sighting on a very small body of water, not even big enough to be considered a pond, but it was also in the shadow of a bustling shopping mall.

Danbury Fair is a mall in western Connecticut. It has a large, inaccessible marshy area behind it and a few very small ponds, if you can call them that, on the sides and in the front. It is a highly developed area, so a variety of wildlife does not thrive there.

It is, however, a fairly reliable place to spot birds such as great blue herons, belted kingfishers, mute swans, Canada geese, American and fish crows, and, of course, mallards. During spring and fall migration times some surprises can show up, which is what keeps me coming back to the spot, even for just a quick loop.

In the few years I have been drive-by birding at the mall, I have seen the aforementioned common species, as well as northern pintail, pied-billed grebes and hooded mergansers.

I associate common mergansers with more wild areas, so I was surprised to see two males and one female swimming in one of these tiny ponds with a steady stream of cars driving by on both sides. Two male hooded mergansers and a few mallards shared the pond.

I found a safe place to pull over in my car and checked out the scene through an open passenger’s side window. I grabbed a few quick photos but the ducks slowly swam away in the opposite direction and did not seem comfortable with the stopped car by the pond.

Common mergansers, I’ve discovered over the years, are quite wary and not at all tolerant of any perceived threat. I didn’t want to further stress them during migration so I quickly pulled out and joined the flow of moving cars.

It had been several years since I had seen common mergansers so close. I find them to be the most wary of New England’s three merganser varieties.

Breaking down the merganser varieties requires its own column because they are so different in many ways, but they also share some similarities. I guess you know what next week’s column will be about.

It sure is nice to be writing about ducks again.