Tag Archives: waterfowl

Strange winter waterfowl

We are meeting Sunday, February 16th at 4pm to plan for Creek Week, and our regular meeting will be February 23rd, at 4pm in the same place.

Below is another article I originally wrote for the Parkwood Inside/Out.

Strange winter waterfowl

Many unusual water birds winter in North Carolina. My favorite place to look for them is Crabtree Lake in [Cary], which is large enough to attract many birds, but also small enough to find them and easily accessible. It can be hard to see migrants, because they are wary and often stay far from shore but they usually swim from danger rather than flying. Parkwood Lake is also a convenient place to look, and even small ponds attract migrants, in addition to the Canada geese and mallard ducks that live here all year. It is not very easy to see the waterfowl staying at the Jordan and Falls reservoirs.

Geese and mallards aren’t supposed to breed here, but captive birds that didn’t learn to migrate were released, creating resident populations. Migratory geese swell the local population in winter, and in the mid-90’s there were many migrants with neck tags in Parkwood, making it easy to get to know geese as individuals.

The first unusual migrants I saw were small black ducks in a tight flock in the water at Clermont one cloudy winter day years ago. They were black scoters; the males being jet black with bright orange bills and the females paler with dark bills. We are used to puddle or dabbling ducks like mallards paddling around, eating plant matter from the surface or as deep as their necks will reach, but many migrants, such as scoters are diving ducks, and swim underwater. Scoters dive for foods such as mussels and barnacles.

Other diving ducks I have seen outside of Parkwood. At a nearby beaver pond about the size of the Lotus Pond I saw what I thought was a long-tailed duck, but it took off fast when it saw me, and long-tails are one of the fastest flying ducks. Long-tailed ducks, or oldsquaws in older guides, are white with black wings and black and gray patches. Like penguins, they swim with their wings, and venture to great depths, after molluscs, crustaceans, and fish. Last winter I frequently saw buffleheads at a wastewater treatment lagoon at Falls Lake. Buffleheads are the smallest duck in the US, and have big heads and striking black and white plumage. They were with wood ducks, and both species nest in tree holes, unlike mallards. Wood ducks are here year-round, and winter is a good time to search for these very wary and colorful ducks, but they prefer creeks and swamps. Buffleheads resemble hooded mergansers, one of three mergansers that winter and sometimes breed in NC. These unducklike ducks have rakish crests and pointed bills they use to catch fish underwater. I’ve seen them at Crabtree, but they are uncommon and wary. A week ago I noticed that there were four ducks, as well as a large flock of geese, at the large stormwater retention pond across Renaissance Parkway from Southpoint Mall. I didn’t have binoculars, but one of the ducks had a white patch, so there could be a pair of hooded mergansers there right now.

The most abundant winter visitor in the Triangle is the double-crested cormorant, which is not a duck. A few usually visit Parkwood Lake. Cormorants are dark and sit low in the water, with their orange bills up. They eat fish and, to make diving easier, their feathers are not very waterproof, so they periodically get out and hold their wings open to dry. There are flocks at the large reservoirs and they can be seen flying just above the water in ragged lines.

Handfuls of pied-billed grebes can be seen on most lakes. They are small ducklike birds with nondescript grayish fuzzy feathers and a dark bar on their bills. They also breed in NC and readily dive for prey such as crayfish.

American coots are pretty common. Coots are rails, chickenlike waterbirds, and are black and gray with stark white bills. They nod their heads as they swim in tight groups, and when they come on to the land at Clermont to eat vegetation and seeds. Coots sometimes breed in NC and are a prey of bald eagles, which have been seen at the Lake.

Vast flocks of pure white tundra swans and snow geese winter on the coast. One icy morning I saw a V of white birds in the cold blue sky far above Fayetteville Road, and they might have been swans or geese.

Now is the time to look, because the migrants will probably be all but gone by mid to late February.