If you’re an aspiring birdwatcher and want to see something other than the birds you’ve been attracting to the backyard, it’s soon going to be a great time to get out get your feet wet...figuratively and literally. There are already a few puddle ducks around, and soon they will be everywhere, the prime hotspots are usually the first places to have open fresh water. So check where there is moving water, at the head of a pond and in the “channel”, where the water will be moving faster. On warm days any roadside ditch could be productive. The best place to look on cold days, when most of the fresh water will be frozen, is right at the end of the pipe at your local sewage lagoon (and yes, when I say “fresh water”, I mean not salt.)
Soon our resident hoards of Mallards will be joined by a much more diverse crowd, so if you see a green head in the ditch, don’t automatically assume it’s a that of the Mallard. I’ve seen the beautiful Northern Shoveler in the ditch and the little wetland area at the corner of Vaughn Harvey and Assumption, pretty cool sighting in the city.
I got my feet wet at the Gray Brook Marsh in Hillsborough, even though I’d been seeing ducks my whole life, I never really stopped to look at them. Once I did, there was no turning back, I was hooked. If you’ve never really looked at ducks you’re missing out. I can’t think of many things in New Brunswick more beautiful than the Wood Duck, but many of the others rank high on the list.
The same as the sparrows mentioned last week, this time of year is easier to differentiate the species. The males are in there finest feathers, the females are a little tougher to identify, but it’ll only get harder as the season progresses, feathers wear and molt and those pesky immatures are hanging around to confuse us. The other nice thing… the females are usually hanging around with males of their species, so at least you have a clue where to look in the field guide. Also, if you get birding before all the ice is out, the ducks will be easier to find, when the ice is gone, the ducks will be able to hide better in the longer grass around the edges. Then they will be nesting and more likely to be disturbed by nosey birders, not that it’s OK to disturb them early in the spring, one should always try to observe from a respectable distance. If the ducks flush, you got too close. I like the largest pond in the Gray Brook Marsh because it opens down the middle first, it’s a good distance from the road for observing with binoculars, (no scope required) and you shouldn’t have to disturb any birds. On cold or rainy days you can see most of the open water from the shelter of your vehicle.
New Brunswick is a great place to be for waterfowl migration, one of the first to show up will be the Ring-necked Duck, then others will be joining, maybe the merganser trio, Common, Red-breasted and Hooded, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Black Duck, Wood Duck, Northern Shoveler, Pie-billed Grebe and the Greater and Lesser Scaup. A little later and the teals will make an appearance, Blue-winged and Green-winged. Not to mention the more rare species that may turn up, somewhere there’ll be a Redhead Duck, maybe Eurasian Wigeon or Teal, maybe a Gadwall (although maybe not all that rare, I’ve never seen one, so I’ll list it here).
Don’t forget to check the long grass, when the snow melts, you’ll maybe see Sora, (you’ll no doubt hear this secretive little bird first, they’re hard to spot), you might see other rails as well, American Bittern, Great Blue Heron and maybe some of the more rare herons, Little Blue, Tricolored, Least Bittern, the Night-Herons, who knows, but if you see any of these last mentioned “more rare” herons on your first trip out, I don’t want to hear about it. Everyone has a few birds they can’t seem to get lucky with, these are mine. When I was younger and more foolish, I spent hours at Waterside Marsh when one of these were reported.
If you venture toward the brackish marsh and salt water you’ll find a whole other world of ducks. The Bay of Fundy is a major migratory route for sea ducks, and since it narrows nicely, the ducks get funneled in as they fly up the bay and into the rivers, making it easy to spot them from shore. You could see thousands of ducks flying over Moncton/Dieppe as they cross overland, to the Northumberland Strait. (I’m the guy holding up traffic in the left turn lane at Champlain Place, counting ducks while you lean on your horn).
Most of the sea ducks you’ll see will be Common Eider, and the Scoters, (pronounced with a long “O”), Black, Surf and White-winged. They are usually flying, but you may see some riding the incoming tide or rafting in a sheltered area in the bay. You may even step outside on a calm night and hear the wing whistle of migrating scoters. One of my favorites is the Long-tailed Duck, they’re around in the winter but you’ll see them migrating as well. There are some rarities that’ll show up in this crowd too, a King Eider, Tufted or Harlequin Duck would definitely raise my heart rate and make my day.
Although there are some challenges when it comes to identifying ducks, most of them have big, obvious field marks that jump out at you. You’ll still need a field guide or very good memory, but differentiating them (especially the males) is doable. Mother Nature has messed with our minds a little, some ducks are hybridizing with other species, so keep that in mind. If you see something that looks like someone photoshopped two species into one, that’s quite possible what it is. The Mallard x Black Duck is the common one, and often shows up as an identification challenge, the males usually show some green on the head, but the females can be difficult. A female Mallard can be hard to differentiate from a Black Duck, a quick gaunt around the internet and you’ll see many such errors. One good field mark is the white tail feathers on the Mallard, the problem is if they’ve been dragging their butts up the banks of the Petitcodiac the tail’s no longer white, making them look even more like a Black Duck. A special challenge for area birders.