Look Who’s Ducked in for a Visit

The major bird “events” that many people look forward to in Florida are the Spring and Fall songbird migrations. In the Fall, hundreds of northern species funnel south through the state either to stay for the winter or on their way to Central and South America. The process is reversed in Spring when these species pass north on the way toward their breeding grounds.

There’s another migration that happens, though. In November, ducks by the thousands begin to arrive on the coasts, lakes, ponds, lagoons, and estuaries. Unlike most songbirds, whose drive to migrate is dictated primarily by length of day, many ducks and other waterfowl migrate when the food supply or weather dictates. If a winter is comparatively mild and food is abundant, these birds may not arrive in Florida until later in the winter, if at all.

One thing to count on, no matter when the ducks arrive, is that there’s almost always a vagrant, rare or unusual species that pops up here and there in central Florida.

For example, there has been a Common Goldeneye at a small retention pond in Melbourne for the past couple of weeks. This particular bird has been hanging out with a flock of Hooded Mergansers. Common Goldeneyes normally winter as far south as the Gulf Coast and the Carolina Coast (though they are increasingly found in northern Florida).

The brown head indicates that this is a female. Note the gold-colored eye that gives this bird its name.
In breeding season, the tip of the bill would be brighter yellow, contrasting with the almost black base. The black area at the tip of a duck’s bill is called the nail and is sometimes useful for species identification.

A few days earlier,  another rare but regular visiting duck species was seen at Orlando Wetlands Park. Buffleheads are small diving ducks, usually seen in saltwater bays or along the coast in winter (though they do breed near northern lakes). These Buffleheads (either females or immature males) were swimming and diving with Hooded Mergansers, Lesser Scaups and a Ring-necked Duck. The typical winter range for Buffleheads just extends into extreme northern Florida.

The Buffleheads are the 3rd and 4th ducks from the left, in this distant shot. The first duck is tipped tail-up, feeding. The white head-stripe was noticeable, even without binoculars.
Here’s a close crop of the birds on the wind-ruffled surface of one of the artificial ponds that make up the park.

The two duck species above are among the more often seen, since their historical winter ranges are not that far away.

Other rarer, but regular waterfowl visitors to Florida include Snow Geese, Ross’ Geese, Mute Swans, and Long-tailed Ducks (the latter usually along the coast or in coastal lagoons). Over-wintering ducks and other waterfowl aren’t always that picky on where they stay, either. It often pays off to drive by suburban and urban retention ponds. Keep your eyes open!

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