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 and you’re doing your part to help birds in all sorts of habitats.

To put it in numbers, wetland birds have increased by 20 million birds since 1970, according to the recent study conducted by several leading conservation groups. Compare that to the loss of 2.9 billion birds overall in the same time frame.

With the fall waterfowl migration under way, this seems like a good time to look at how some of New England’s more familiar ducks are doing. For this, I studied the summaries written by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the country’s foremost authorities on all things birds. Cornell used data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Partners in Flight to arrive at their conservation status levels. Spoiler alert, all species below except one is listed as “low concern.”

Mallards are North America’s most abundant duck and their population has increased slightly since 1966. Quick quiz: What is North America’s most abundant diving duck? Keep reading to find the answer.

The American black duck is one of several examples of how this can get tricky. On one hand, black ducks have decreased by 84 percent since 1966, according to the NA Breeding Bird Survey. On the other hand, they are still common and of low concern. Cornell added that the declines have slowed since 2004.

Green-winged teal are numerous and increasing, as are gadwall. American wigeons are common but their population has decreased by 65 percent since 1966.

Hooded mergansers, one of my favorite birds, are “fairly common” and are stable or increasing. Common mergansers, despite the huge rafts seen throughout New England during migration, have declined by 65 percent — two percent a year — since 1966. Again, however, they are listed as low concern. Red-breasted mergansers are common and stable.

Common goldeneye are also numerous and either stable or increasing. Bufflehead are decreasing in some areas but increasing overall.

Northern shovelers, redheads and ring-necked ducks are common and stable. Northern pintails, one of New England’s more handsome ducks, are also listed as “common,” but have seen a 70 percent cumulative decline since 1966.

Canvasback have bounced back from low numbers in the 1980s that had landed them on the special concern list and are now considered stable with an estimated 700,000 individuals.

Wood ducks are common and increasing, another good conservation story as their numbers were dangerously low in the late 1800s.

Now for the answers to the spoiler alert and quick quiz. Hint, they come from the same family.

The lesser scaup is the most abundant diving duck in North America, despite a 1.8 percent per year decline since 1966. The global breeding population of lesser scaup is estimated at 3.8 million, according to Partners in Flight.

Finally, greater scaup are “common throughout their range, but their populations are rapidly declining,” according to Cornell. That puts them on the “common species in steep decline” list.

Since this is New England, I figured I’d better include common loons, even though they are technically not ducks. According to Cornell, common loons are “stable and healthy overall.” This despite a slew of threats they face on their breeding grounds.

In a study filled with distressing news about bird populations, ducks and loons thankfully have bucked the trend. Now, let’s keep it that way.

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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.

Common merganser at mall

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

Yes, you read that right. I saw a common merganser at Danbury Fair mall the other day. It wasn’t walking the hallways looking for the latest fashions, but it was swimming in a very small pond near the entrance to the mall. Common mergansers are usually seen on large lakes or rivers, but this guy was in a tiny pond in a highly developed area — not common for common mergansers. The next day there were two males and one female common merganser in the pond. These large, handsome ducks are among my favorites and have been for a long time. More on that coming up in the next few days.

Anything can happen during migration periods. Keep your eyes open and let me know what you see out there.

For the Birds: GBBC and divers

Photo by Chris Bosak
A pair of Ring-necked Ducks rest at a pond in Darien, March 2014.

Here is the latest For the Birds column.

I decided to stick to the woods behind my house for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I could have gone off to some nearby birding hot spot to try to log more birds, but I decided to stay put and “bird my patch.”

The action was fairly slow but not terribly so. I didn’t find any out-of-the-ordinary species, but I did get a lot of the common ones. I got my chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers and American goldfinches. A small flock of pine siskins came to the backyard just as I was wrapping things up. I was glad it arrived for the count as this bird has been a regular visitor all winter.

The highlight of the count for me was checking out the beaver pond at the end of the trail that begins behind my house. The pond was mostly frozen, probably about 85 percent so, but the open water that did exist on the far edge held a lone male hooded merganser and nine ring-necked ducks.

Did I say nine? I meant to say 12. No, make that 13. When getting a precise number of birds is important, such as when doing a bird census like the Great Backyard Bird Count, it is important to check and double check the diving ducks.

When I first looked at the ring-necked ducks, I counted nine. I moved along the edge of the pond to change my angle and suddenly I counted 12. I watched for another minute and another duck popped up its head to make 13. I watched carefully for another couple minutes and the number stayed at 13.

Ring-necked ducks are one of the more common diving ducks we see in New England during the winter. Diving ducks are the ones that, true to the description, dive underwater for their prey such as fish and crustaceans. The other types of ducks are dabblers and they simply tip up and stick their heads in the water in their search for food.

Most of our very common ducks are dabblers. Mallards, black ducks, wood ducks and teal are all dabblers. The divers include species such as the mergansers, bufflehead, goldeneye, and, as mentioned, ring-necked ducks.

Dabblers are sometimes difficult to count because there can be so many of them they tend to crowd each other out. But at least you can always see them. They don’t “disappear” underwater.

When you approach a pond and see a flock of divers, you never know whether you are looking at all of them or not. Not that it would have made a whole lot of difference in the grand scheme of things if I had submitted 12 ring-necked ducks, or even my original count of nine, for that matter. But, of course, I was trying to be as accurate as possible so I’m glad I was able to submit the correct number.

All in all, it was a fun count with a decent number of species. How did you do? Feel free to send me an email and let me know.

For more information and international results of the Great Backyard Bird Count, click here.

For the Birds: Northern shoveler highlights trip

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern shoveler seen at 14-Acre Pond in Norwalk, Conn., fall 2018.

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers …

Each month brings its own gifts for birdwatchers.

November brings ducks in large numbers to our ponds, lakes and rivers. If December is kind, weather-wise, that continues. If December is cold and frosty, which it often is, those bodies of freshwater freeze and the ducks head farther south.

This year, November has been colder than usual; many of these waters are frozen already, threatening to spoil the “winter duck” fun early. A quick thaw can bring the ducks back, but an extended freeze will push the ducks away until early next spring.

When the inland waters freeze, New England birdwatchers still have the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound to get their duck fix. But even that falls short in some regards. While there are some duck species that may be found in fresh or saltwater, most are an either-or proposition.

When the freeze takes over, New England can pretty much say goodbye to species such as wood duck, common merganser, ring-necked duck, green-winged teal and gadwall. Other freshwater specialty species — such as pintail and shoveler — are also south-bounfd following a deep freeze.

I was lucky to spot one of these specialty species the other day while checking out an old haunt of mine in southwestern Connecticut. I scanned 14-Acre Pond in Norwalk and noticed a good number of gadwall, a few ring-necked ducks, a pair of mute swans, and many mallards, domesticated ducks and Canada geese. The domesticated ducks were a surprise. I had never noticed them before when I used to frequent the pond.

One duck stood out among the rest, however. The large white patches that sandwich its otherwise rusty side stood out like a beacon. Even though Continue reading