Guest Author - Kimberly Weiss
Waterfowl of Winter
If you are a beginning birder, I suggest you start out with waterfowl--ducks, geese and swans. They are the easiest and in my opinion, most fun birds to identify. They are large, usually sit still, and sometimes do amsuing things like fight or mate (or fight over mates). Winter is the best time to find a variety of waterfowl, unless you live very far north. Many breeds lay their eggs up by the Arctic circle and don't come down to the temperate zone until after Halloween.
The smallest of the three are ducks. Ducks are divided into two groups: Dabbling ducks and diving ducks. Dabbling ducks live in shallow water, and they do not submerge their entire bodies to eat. The common pond ducks are all dabbling ducks.Those all-white ducks you see sometimes are dabbling ducks--and likely escapees from a nearby farm. The most common wild duck is the mallard, also a dabbling duck. Male mallards have green heads and gray-and-black-striped backs. Female mallards are dull-brown all around. Two species look sort of like the female mallard: the black duck, which is actually dark brown, and the gadwall, which is light gray and has a black bill. These are fairly common in wetlands. Another dabbling duck that is pretty common is the wigeon. There are two types: the American Wigeon and the Eurasian wigeon. The males have a green (American) or brownish (Eurasian) head, but with a white stripe down the front of their heads, giving them the nickname of "baldpate." Females are duller, but both sexes have blue bills. Other species of dabblers seen in the winter include pintails and shovelers, though they are not likely to be found in a local pond, but more out in natural areas.
Diving ducks live in deeper water and go completely under water to eat. The most common in my "neck of the woods" is the tiny bufflehead. Check any bay, even near a big city, and you'll see these miniature ducks. Females are brown with a white cheek patch, and males are white and navy-blue. They travel in small flocks. A large flock of diving ducks is probably made up of scaup ( males look similar to mallards, but a little fatter) or canvasbacks ( males have reddish heads, and sloping beaks). Sea ducks are diving ducks that never come too far inland. You won't see them unless you live on the shore. One that I've seen coming in a bit is the "long tailed duck." Like most sea ducks, they are black-and-white, and like their name suggests, they have long tails. They used to have the very non-PC name of "Oldsquaw." Scoters and Eiders are other common sea ducks.
Geese and swans are bigger, and never dive. Canada geese are the most common, with black necks and white cheeks. They are hated by some due to their grass-eating and green-pooping. Brants are smaller geese, looking very similar to their Canadian relatives, but with white spots under their heads. Snow geese are white. All three species tend to travel in huge flocks.
Last, but not least, are swans. Those graceful, curve necked swans are mute swans, but they are not native to the United States. Here in North America, two straight necked species can be found: trumpeter Swans (out west) and tundra Swans (to the east). I confess I've never seen a trumpeter, and I've only seen the tundra twice. They are shy creatures, and not likely to show up in a suburb.
A picture is worth 1000 words. If you want to take up birding, grab a field guide, some binoculars and go to a body of water. I guarantee, you won't be disappointed.