Monday, September 21, 2015

They're BAAAACCK! Part 2


American Widgeons, loafing along the lake
A few days ago Nancy, my dad and I took a walk around Capitol Lake.  In the dog days of late summer, the lake is thick and turgid with clots of algae:  there are very few waterbirds.  But as the weather shifts into more cold & rain, and the days move into September, the waterbirds who winter over on this lake start to filter in.  And so it was a few days ago.

     We saw a few hundred American Widgeons.  These are small dabbling ducks, who feed in shallow water.  Their favorite feeding strategy is to upend themselves, dabbling with their bills along mucky bottoms and paddling with their feet to maintain their position.  From the surface what we humans see is the butt end; in widgeons the feathers under the tail are a bright white, so there is this marvelous big flash of white butt when they go ass over teakettle to feed.

    They are often the first wintering ducks to show up on the lake.  Part of this may be that Capitol lake is currently full of mats of bright green aquatic vegetation and this is the preferred winter food of widgeons.  

American Widgeons & friends
     They may stay here throughout the winter;  if Capitol Lake runs out of vegetation, they will leave the lake and look for other sources of winter food.  Sometimes they will leave the water and seek marshy green fields, finding their food there.  By next spring they will form pair bonds and return to their breeding habitat in wet tundra in Canada and up the Arctic circle in Alaska.    
     As we walk along the trail at Capitol Lake, we can’t usually see them:  the shrubs lining the path tend to block most of our views.  But we hear them:  they are pretty chatty to each other, making a distinctive “rubber ducky” kind of squeaky contact call.  They tend to stay together in groups, so the squeaking noises can be pronounced.
     There are reasons they hang out together:  as Nancy, Dad and I watched, a Bald Eagle swooped in over them.  Masses of screaming widgeons left the lake surface in a hurry, beating wings to avoid this predator.  The eagle made a leisurely circle around the panicking widgeons and went to a nearby perch, where it will keep an eye on the dinner table.  It didn’t catch any ducks on this pass, but my sense of  its behavior was that it was doing an exploratory flushing of the prey, watching for a weak or unwary duck.  Sooner or later, it will succeed.  And if the duck dinner doesn’t happen, there’s always salmon.

     When I see the American Widgeons begin to group on the lake, I am reminded that this is the
season of migration.  These ducks are showing me migration in action.  Let the fall season begin…

•  All photos by Nancy Partlow


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