Speaking of Nature: A dandy dabbling duck
Bill Danielson photo
A pair of American wigeons. The wings of the male (left) show the white patches that are only visible in flight. Note the general brown appearance of the female’s head.
Bill Danielson photo
Two male American wigeons display some key field marks while on the water. The most important is the white patch on the head. The bird on the right is having a “bad hair day” because a gust of wind caused some of his feathers to stand up.
The big news in birding this week is the arrival of the waterfowl. Ducks and geese have flooded into our area as the ice covering lakes and ponds has melted and a day doesn’t go by without me seeing these birds as they explore the landscape for every new patch of water they can find. Among the swarm there are many familiar faces, but if you look carefully (and in the right places) you may come across a few species that aren’t too familiar. Such is the case with the American wigeon (Anas americana).
The American wigeon is one of those species that you will immediately recognize as being a little different. In flight, this difference expresses itself in the form of white patches on the leading edges of the wings. Both males and females have these patches, but the feathers are much brighter in the males. With both sexes, however, the wing patches are conspicuous from great distances.
Another key field mark is visible only on the males. Once again it is a patch of bright white feathers, but this time it is found on the top of the head. There is great contrast between the white on top of the head and the patches of iridescent green in a teardrop shape in the region of the eyes. Visible from great distances, this combination of feathers once led people to imagine the bird was bald, which lead to the old common name “baldpate.”
If you were lucky enough to see one of these birds up close, you might catch sight of the patch of iridescent metallic green in the secondary flight feathers. This is a patch of feathers known as a “speculum” and it is famous in ducks. In the original Latin, “speculum” means “mirror,” which is a reference to the shiny, metallic appearance of the feathers. In mallards, these feathers shift between purple and blue, but in the wigeon they are a bright metallic green, like a male mallard’s head.
As is customary in ducks, the colors of the females are more reserved. Females have patches of lighter feathers on the leading edges of the wings and they lack the white head patches altogether, but they should be immediately recognizable as being different even if they are seen by themselves. For most of us, however, only the males allow a solid identification.
If you lived on the coast this bird might be very familiar to you as a winter resident. As is the case with all ducks, they must find open water during the winter and here in New England, that means they must head for the ocean. The winter range of the American wigeon extends just north enough to include Cape Cod as its northern limit. You must travel down to South Carolina before the winter range extends westward from the coast and crosses the interior of the United States.
In the breeding season, the American wigeon occupies a funnel-shaped breeding range that starts with a narrow point in Colorado and then expands to the east and west as you move northward. By the time you reach the Canadian border, the range reaches almost coast to coast. For some reason, however, the American wigeon is not a coastal breeder, which leaves Massachusetts out of the loop, as it were.
As a result, we here in western Massachusetts can sometimes catch sight of wigeons during their spring and fall migrations, but these are short periods subject to poor weather. If you want to see a wigeon, you either have to head for the coast during the winter, or you have to brave the iffy weather and do your best to track them down. As luck would have it, there are wigeons in our midst right now. Head for the Connecticut River or the Quabbin Reservoir with a pair of binoculars and be prepared to see these birds from a fairly great distance.
I have never managed to spot a wigeon during migration. I have made many attempts, but for one reason or another it just hasn’t worked out for me. My only success has been while I was at the ocean in the winter and I was particularly pleased to capture a few pictures during a recent trip to Rhode Island this past February. This is definitely a species that has been on my wish list for a very long time and I am very happy to finally be able to share it with you.
The private lives of wigeons are fairly predictable. Males ensconce themselves in luxuriant color and do everything in their power to seduce a female. They are attentive to their females, aggressive to any competitors and basically spend their every waking moment placing the objects of their desire on pedestals. Then, after the female is clearly anchored to a nest filled with eggs, the male makes some transparent excuse and bails, leaving the female to raise the ducklings on her own.
The female is responsible for three weeks of incubation and the first few weeks of the lives of her ducklings. Even the smallest ducklings can pretty much take care of themselves when it comes to food, but they need to be shown around and they also need their mothers to warm them when they get chilled. As they increase in size and start to acquire feathers, their need for their mother will gradually diminish.
As with all ducklings, the diet of little American wigeons is heavy on insects, crustaceans and invertebrates. But what is uncommon about the wigeon is the fact that the diet of the adults consists of more plant matter than any other dabbling duck. In fact, they are such notorious vegetarians that there is an aquatic plant known as wigeon grass.
Their heavy reliance on plant foods has even changed the shape of their bodies. Wigeons have noticeably shortened bills, which allow them to exert the maximum force on stubborn vegetation. In fact, they have the strongest bite of any of the dabbling ducks. Capable as they may be, however, they are not above stealing and may often wait for other species to bring food to the surface.
I realize that I may have just used a term (dabbling) that is unfamiliar to you. A dabbling duck is a duck that feeds in shallow water by submerging its head and reaching down for food beneath the surface. This often results in the duck raising its tail to point straight toward the sky. It also results in the comical waving and flailing of feet in the air as the bird attempts to reach some morsel or another.
In addition to their distinctive feeding postures, dabbling ducks also have the ability to launch themselves almost vertically from the surface of the water. The heavier “bay” ducks that specialize on diving for food will require a fairly substantial stretch of open water upon which they can get a running start when trying to take flight. Because dabbling ducks do not have this requirement, they are often called “puddle ducks” for their ability to exploit even the smallest pools.
As I mentioned earlier, I have not had any luck seeing wigeons during their spring or fall migrations. The checklist of the birds of Massachusetts lists wigeons as being uncommon in March and April, but year after year they are reported in our area. Visit the Reader’s Corner page of my website and check the links for bird sightings for recent information on sightings. Based on some of the sightings I have read about, the Connecticut River seems to be a good place to start. Good luck!
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com