Unlimited Ducks!

As much of the nation went into a deep freeze last week, the cold air brought with it those promised ducks to Florida. As I mentioned in my last blog post, ducks and other waterfowl only tend to migrate south when the weather or food supply dictate. When ponds and lakes freeze over, these birds cannot forage and have to move to warmer places.

The ducks came in to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in massive amounts last weekend. Thousands of birds settled into their usual digs along Black Point Wildlife Drive [map], along with a growing contingent of shorebirds and gulls and terns.

The first most noticeable difference along Black Point was the relative abundance of Wilson’s Snipes, feeding in the open. Snipes are usually fairly cryptic and will suddenly take to the air in an erratic zig-zag flight pattern only when approached very closely, often startling whomever is walking by. They rely on their camouflaged plumage to stay hidden. This was the largest single grouping of Wilson’s Snipes I’ve seen – almost 40 birds.

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Normally secretive Wilson’s Snipes feeding in the open with Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.
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Snipe’s bills are similar in size and shape to those of dowitchers, and their feeding methods and posture seemed much alike. This bird was resting in the margin of some tall marsh grass.

Ducks started appearing farther along the drive. First, Hooded Mergansers in small groups, quickly diving and scouting for prey. When food is abundant, these birds are in almost constant motion and only fully on the surface for a few seconds at a time.

 

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A Male Hooded Merganser in an alert posture (crest up).

Blue-winged Teals had already arrived in numbers earlier in the Fall, but they have been joined by Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintails.

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This male (left) and female (right) Blue-winged Teal pair have likely been at MINWR for weeks.
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Bottoms up! Even without breeding plumage, you can see how pintail ducks got their name.
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A wider shot showing Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, and American Coots together. Large areas of the ponds on the west side of the road (north of Cruickshank) were like this.

A large flock of Redheads were just within binocular range, as well as smaller pockets of Gadwalls, Ring-necked Ducks, and even an overflight of Black Scoters. Overhead and in spotting scope range (for those that had them) were many hundreds of more ducks, too distant or backlit to identify.

Of course, winter means American Coot time. Coots gather in huge rafts over the winter, using a “safety in numbers” survival strategy from predators, such as Bald Eagles. Sometimes other birds use the coots as cover, some blending in better than others. The largest rafts of coots were actually along Playalinda Beach Road (402) in some mangrove-screened ponds [map]. Google Maps erroneously calls this Max Brewster Memorial Parkway.

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A pair of Redheads trying to fit in.

The main event the past few years along this stretch has been the large and vocal numbers of American Wigeons. Whether it’s the added privacy of the mangrove hedge or something about the ecology of the area, the wigeons have staked it out.

 

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The few gaps in the mangroves allowed for some photos. The green feathers on the male American Wigeons are spectacular when they catch the sunlight.
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Many American Wigeons (and coots, of course). There might be a grebe or two in there, as well.
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The wigeons were a bit skittish. It seemed like they took to the sky at the slightest approach through the mangroves. The large flocks would break up and circle in smaller groups like this before settling down again.

Hopefully the ducks will stay over longer this winter than they have. The Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival begins in just over a month, and the impressive array of ducks at MINWR would be a great treat for field-trip attendees!

 

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).

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The brown head indicates that this is a female. Note the gold-colored eye that gives this bird its name.
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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.

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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.
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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!

Domestic Tranquility

Here are some recent photos taken of the local domestic and feral domestic waterfowl at Veteran’s Memorial Park, in The Villages, FL.

All the Mallards there have been “officially” classified as domestic or hybrids, according to the ABA and eBird.

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Another telltale trait of domestic-type Mallards is size. Mallards with domestic genes are usually noticeably larger than wild Mallards. This duck was quite large.

Of course, there usually are the typical white ducks and geese, too.

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Typical domestic goose. I love all birds, but to be honest, that mean look isn’t just coincidence. Geese can be mean (but probably not as mean as swans)!

The local “established feral” Muscovy Ducks have also bred with the Mallards, resulting in some interestingly patterned ducks.

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Note the subtle head patterning on the second duck from the left. That cinnamon shaded duck was stunning! A “typical” white domestic duck and a hybrid round out the crew.

 

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I am pretty sure this one is a Mallard-Muscovy-Domestic Duck!

While this parade of semi-domestic ducks swam by, several groups of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (totaling over 50 birds), newly arrived and taking a rest, watched from a safe distance.

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These Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were looking on at the locals like disapproving parents at a KISS show (ask your parents. Or grandparents).

The domestic/feral waterfowl may not be “officially” countable, but I love ducks and geese, so even these guys have a warm place in my heart.

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A Photogenic Muscovy Duck.