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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Waterfowl in Migration: Snow Goose, Gadwall and Ruddy Duck

[Lake St. Clair Metropark, MI. Late Oct/Early Nov 2014]

Having covered the Fall movements of Shorebird and Songbird species in earlier posts, we turn our birding wits toward Waterfowl -- the varied and wonderful family of Geese, Ducks and Swans that form the tail-end of migration in this region.

Waterfowl are notable not only for their diversity, but also their vulnerability -- they are the species most at risk this time of year. Their spectacular migration, having attracted the sinister attention of hunters across the country, is lethally interrupted in an orgy of violence every year (see here on the details) -- clearly, the 16 million waterfowl killed represent16 million compelling reasons to pursue alternate and strictly non-violent recreational pursuits such as Birding, Hiking or Wildlife Photography!

A quick excursion to Lake St. Clair Metropark was rewarded by the sighting of a delightful sample of Waterfowl species including 1 goose and 5 duck species:
  • Snow Goose
  • Gadwall
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Redhead
While the distinction between different yet kindred species is sometimes obvious, defining the explicit rules for such differentiation may require deeper elaboration. Consider, as an example, the simple case of Deer and Antelope -- superficially similar yet so entirely different; and, in the same vein, Geese and Ducks.

In the former example, everything hinges on the antlers (branched vs. not; seasonal vs. permanent, etc). However, in the latter example, there are no hard-and-fast rules and exceptions abound. But, in general, it may be said that: Geese are longer-necked, larger sized, strictly monogamous, and herbivorous. Ducks, on the other hand, are smaller, shorter legged, seasonally monogamous, and omnivorous (with many species subsisting on fish or molluscs in addition to plants and insects). Also, Geese honk while ducks don't.

We start with Snow Goose -- a species that has rebounded spectacularly in numbers after hitting a low in the early 1900's. Indeed, they now number the same as the ubiquitous Canada Goose -- about 5 million in total. However, unlike the latter species, Snow Geese are not suburban and rarely seen outside their winter strongholds.

Snow Goose -- note the extensive black wing tips
The Snow Goose is exclusively an American species that breeds in the high tundra -- you won't find this bird in the Old World. Snow Geese tend to be selective about where they stopover while in migration and hence this individual's presence in Michigan was wholly unexpected and momentarily electrified the Michigan birdlines. Snow Goose flyways take them to their wintering grounds in the Southern US and Mexico where they congregate in staggering numbers such as at Bosque del Apache.

Snow Goose -- note the distinctive "grinning patch" on the bill

Reflecting its Arctic breeding habitat, the Snow Goose is plumaged in dazzling white; and, other than with Ross's Goose, it is hardly confusable with any other species (see how Ross's Goose differs from Snow Goose). Black wing tips and the signature "grinning patch" are also hard to miss.

Snow Goose with Canada Geese

Snow Goose feeding on vegetation at Lake St Clair Metropark
Now over to the ducks -- thanks to species such as Wood Duck, Mallard, etc., we are accustomed to a certain level of colorful flamboyance in our drakes. Thus, it should come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the Gadwall drake is cloaked entirely in subdued, but elegant, tans, greys, blacks and browns:

An elegant Gadwall Drake
Gadwall seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Unlike the Snow Goose, the Gadwall is a global species found in Europe and Asia as well (eg., seen in winter in India). In the East of the Country, Gadwall are highly migratory moving between their breeding grounds in the Great Plains and Prairies and South to their wintering grounds. However, in the West they may be found year round (eg., at Baylands Preserve).

Ruddy Duck seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Much smaller than Gadwall, Ruddy Duck is a stiff-tailed duck of the Center-West regions of the US; it is a New World duck although escapee populations exist in Europe. Small in size, the males can be extremely aggressive in the breeding season and will chase or attack anything or anyone they deem to be a threat. Here seen in their winter colors, Ruddy Duck's baby-blue bills and chestnut bodies are quite remarkable in alternate plumage (eg., as seen in Puerto Rico and California).

Other species observed were Lesser Scaup:

Northern Shoveler -- proudly sporting their honker bills:

... and a juvenile Redhead:

Red Head seen swimming in Lake St. Clair
We conclude with a couple of  bonus birds -- an American Coot and a Pied-billed Grebe that were spied in the vicinity:

Waterfowl are a highly adaptable family of species and, other than the Labrador Duck, are thriving in their home habitats in the US. Unfortunately, their reproductive success is a fact that has not gone unnoticed by those who would do them harm and, for this reason, we wish them Godspeed and all the conservation protections they rightfully deserve.


France Paulsen said...

Sweet and timely. The northern fowl is arriving in my neck of the woods and I was excited to see the Ruddy Duck, Gadwall and Shoveler on my outing with the Caloosa Bird Club on Monday. I love to see them as it is such a treat. I look forward to the coming days/weeks as more and more make their way down south. Great photos as always, thanks for sharing.

Bob Pelkey said...

Wonderful report, Hemant. When I ultimately make it to Bosque del Apache NWR, your distinction between Snow Goose and Ross's Goose will have to be remembered.

It is a great resource you offer with links to your previous work. From here, I was led to your report of Gadwall in India with the species seen in such good company. In your early 2014 report I have also noted your reference of the documentary "Winged Migration," and already have it cued up to end my day.

Unknown said...

Great photos and report! Thanks for all the input its worth to share..

Nicaragua Bird Hunting - Much more than hunt

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