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.

Why it’s called a Ring-necked Duck (even though ring-billed would make more sense)

Photo by Chris Bosak Ring-necked Duck in Darien, March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Ring-necked Duck in Darien, March 2014.

It took years for me to start calling this duck by it’s proper name: Ring-necked Duck. I would invariably blurt out “Look, Ring-billed Duck.” But, unlike the Ring-billed Gull, this bird is not named for an obvious ring around its bill.

Instead it is named after a hardly-noticeable ring around its neck. Conditions, including the posture of the duck, need to be right to even see the neck ring. The ring around the bill, however, is obvious in most conditions, unless the duck is sleeping with its bill tucked into its back feathers. Even the female, which is mostly brown in color, has a ring around her bill. (She also has a faint ring around her neck.)

So why Ring-necked Duck? Ornithologists in the 1800s named many birds by studying dead specimens. Apparently with the bird so close the chestnut colored neck band is more obvious, so it was named as such. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to the average birder (like me) in the field, but it is what it is. The above photo shows both the ringed neck and ringed bill of the beautiful duck.

Ring-necked Ducks are seen throughout New England, mostly in fresh-water ponds and lakes, from late fall through early spring.

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

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

Wood Ducks not happy with Redhead

Photo by Chris Bosak A Redhead swims alongside a Ring-necked Duck in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Redhead swims alongside a Ring-necked Duck in Darien in March 2014.

In a previous post I mentioned I had seen a Redhead at Spring Grove Cemetery in Darien, Conn. It was the first time I had seen a Redhead at this small pond and it shared the water with Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks, Canada Geese and Mallards.

At one point or another, I saw the Redhead “cross paths” with each of the other kinds of ducks. With one exception, the other ducks and geese basically paid no attention to the Redhead. In fact, at one point it was diving among a small flock of Canada Geese. It resurfaced next to a different goose every time and none of the geese seemed to mind.

It hung around the Ring-necked Ducks quite a bit and my suspicion is that it arrived with those ducks and will likely depart with them as well. Just a guess.

Five Hooded Mergansers passed the Redhead at one point with no drama.

Photo by Chris Bosak A flock of Hooded Mergansers swims past a Redhead at a Darien pond in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A flock of Hooded Mergansers swims past a Redhead at a Darien pond in March 2014.

But the Wood Ducks did not like the Redhead getting too close. The Redhead drifted over from one side and the Wood Ducks from the other. When they got close enough, the male Wood Duck lowered its head and snapped repeatedly at the Redhead. Then the female Wood Duck did the same thing. The Redhead casually drifted away from the Woodies, but apparently not fast enough as the male Wood Duck reacted even more strongly to shoo away the somewhat rare New England visitor.

Fun stuff, this birdwatching hobby.

Photo by Chris Bosak A pair of Wood Ducks show their displeasure with a nearby Redhead in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A pair of Wood Ducks show their displeasure with a nearby Redhead in Darien in March 2014.

Redhead makes surprise visit

Photo by Chris Bosak Redhead seen in Darien pond in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Redhead seen in Darien pond in March 2014.

I drove past the pond at first, assuming nothing of note would be there. But that nagging voice in the back of my head said: “Go back and check. It’ll take five minutes and you’re right here anyway.” I listened to that voice, as I usually do, and it paid off, as it often does.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Redhead swims at a pond in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Redhead swims at a pond in Darien in March 2014.

The pond at Spring Grove Cemetery in Darien is small but often fairly productive. It’s a good place to see Wood Ducks in the fall and spring. Hooded Mergansers are frequent visitors in winter when the water isn’t frozen over. Ring-necked Ducks are occasional visitors. And, of course, Canada Geese and Mallards are usually there.

But one day this week, not only were Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks all there, but a surprise visitor was there as well. Redheads are a beautiful medium-sized duck that are seen occasionally in New England. I’ve seen massive flocks of them in the Midwest, but only a handful of times have I seen them in New England. They are seen sometimes within huge flocks of scaup. But I’ve never seen one in New England at a pond as small as this one. It was interesting to see it among the mergansers and ring-neckeds.

This is a male Redhead. The female is much duller in color, mostly tannish brown.

In a post later this week I’ll let you know how the Redhead seemed to get along with the other ducks in the small pond.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Redhead seen in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Redhead seen in Darien in March 2014.

BirdsofNewEngland’s random bird thought of the day: Ring-necked Ducks

Photo by Chris Bosak Ring-necked Ducks swim at Selleck's/Dunlap Woods in Darien, March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Ring-necked Ducks swim at Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods in Darien, March 2014.

In my last post about getting out there to check out the ducks before they are gone for the summer, I listed a bunch of ducks that winter throughout New England, but breed farther north. I left off that list Ring-necked Duck. It just didn’t come to mind when I was compiling the list. Sure enough, the next day I went out for a quick bird walk and the only ducks I saw were Ring-necked Ducks. I immediately thought: Hey, I don’t think I mentioned Ring-necked Ducks in that last post.

So, finally getting its due, here you have the Ring-necked Duck, a very handsome duck that spends its winters here in New England (and well south, too) and breeds in northern New England and into Canada. As you can see from the photo, a more apt name might be Ring-billed Duck, but the scientists who named it likely had a dead specimen in hand and the ring around its neck — which is difficult to see in the field — was more visible. It took me years to stop calling it Ring-billed Duck, but I eventually got used to it.

Also, as you can see from the photo, the species is sexually dimorphic: the males and females look different. All ducks seen in New England are sexually dimorphic with the males often brilliantly colored and females usually more dull in color.