Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Hooded Mergansers

A Hooded Merganser drake.

     Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) are among the handsomest of diving ducks. They are also the smallest of our 3 mergansers (referred to as "Sawbills" and "Fish Ducks" by hunters due to the serrated edges of their bills used to catch fish and other creatures). Hoodies are about 18" and weigh less than 2 lbs. Indeed only the Eurasian Smew is a smaller merganser. The scientific name is derived from the Greek "lophos" for "crest" and "dutes" for "diver." Their specific name "cucullatus" comes from the Latin for "hood." Their distinctive crests or hoods are a signature field mark and also gives them other names that are sometimes used: Hairy Heads or Puffy Heads.

Some Hooded Mergansers, both drakes and hens, show why they are also called "Hairy Heads" or "Puffy Heads."

     Hoodies are also only indigenous to North America, rarely straying off the continent as they're relatives occasionally do. The term "merganser" comes to us by way of several languages. "Mergus" is Latin for "diver" while "anser" means "goose." Meanwhile "meer" is Germanic for "sea" and "ganser" refers to a "goose." All mergansers are are diving ducks, tend to be large, usually have crests, and have thin, serrated bills useful in catching prey. Hooded Mergansers are not only smaller, but frequent fresh water much more than any of their other native cousins. It is uncommon to see them in even brackish water as they favor fresh water almost exclusively.
     Although Hooded Mergansers are extremely good divers (their legs are set so far back on their bodies that they are clumsy on land) and are quite adept at catching fish, they also ingest more vegetable matter than other mergansers. In general, ducks that feed on vegetation are said to be much better tasting than ducks who feed on fish and other creatures. For a look at a juvenile both in and out of the water, check out this video:


     But while Hoodies are considered the least "fishy" tasting and best eating of the mergansers, they are rarely hunted. Indeed there is very little hunting for any type of merganser. I've had friends try and eat Hooded Mergansers and they tell me that they are quite horrid, no matter how you prepare them. So despite being legal to hunt during the regular duck seasons, no one really hunts them and there is very little hunting pressure for any other merganser either.
     Winter is the best time to see Hooded Mergansers in the DC area. Many overwinter with us, staying this far North as long as there is open water. They form small flocks of about 6-12 birds before pairing up by the end of winter. Drakes (males) do not attain their black and white "Hairy Heads" until the second year and do so only from Fall through the breeding season. First year birds look like females, with a disheveled-looking crest, except for having dark bills and yellow eyes. Adult breeding displays are neat to watch, with males showing off their crests, flipping their heads back as they try and convince hens (females), which are often in short supply, to pair up with them. 

A Hoodie hen.

     For a short video of them displaying, please check out this short YouTube video from the Capital Naturalist Channel:


Two Hoodie drakes displaying against each other with a hen nearby.

     Once they pair up, hens look for cavities to nest in (drakes take no part in rearing young as in most waterfowl), mostly North of our region, but a few hang around and attempt to nest. For quite a while, Hooded Merganser numbers had been low due to loss of habitat, particularly large enough trees with cavities for the hens to use. Some resort to nesting on top of stumps and as far away as half a mile from water. Shortage of suitable sites also results in their dumping their eggs into the nests of not only other Hoodies, but Wood Ducks and occasionally other waterfowl. Since they often are out competed by Wood Ducks for the same accommodations, it was a while before their numbers rebounded. 

female hooded mergansers check out a wood duck box

     However, their numbers now appear secure. They likely benefited from nesting boxes put out for Wood Ducks and other conservation efforts. They also occasionally will share nesting cavities with Wood Ducks, laying their eggs among the Woodies' eggs and sometimes even taking turns brooding them. 

Hooded Mergansers with hoods both up and down.

     Typically in late March and April, hens lay 6-18 white, very round eggs, not preparing the nesting cavity with much more than the wood chips they find inside and some pulled feathers. After approximately 34 days of incubation, the precocial young are born. The next day, they jump from the tree cavity to the waiting hen below, much like Wood Ducks do and regardless of height. For more on Wood Ducks, their first jumps, and nest boxes, please refer to the Capital Naturalist Blog on Wood Ducks:        

     Hoodies can swim and dive right away after parachuting from their nest. This is helpful since so many predators are willing to eat them. The females lead the young around until they fledge about 70 days later. She will sometimes conduct a "broken wing act" to lure any potential predators away while the young dive and hide. This consists of her pretending that she is hurt and splashing around just ahead of the danger until she has led it away, before she miraculously recovers. 
     These handsome ducks are very good at taking flight off the water, not needing the long pattering along the surface that many other divers need. They seem very agile whether over, on or under water. Here's a look at a few on an Alexandria lake:


Every year I look forward to going to my favorite sites to watch them court one another, flipping their "hairy heads" back and chasing one another. They are not only among the prettiest of ducks, but also among the more interesting in the way they behave. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ring-necked Ducks

     Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) are among our most commonly seen and widespread freshwater diving ducks. Freshwater diving or bay ducks, are often referred to as pochards in other parts of the globe. Though often just called divers, pochards around the world (there are 16 species in 2 different Genera worldwide) share some similar traits. First of all, most do not inhabit oceans and swim using only their feet (which like other diving birds are placed well back on their bodies). Sea ducks use their wings as well as their feet when swimming. Most male bay ducks also have similar plumage patterns, of dark patches with light colors, bright colored eyes, and very similar voices due to having the same voice box apparatus (called fenestrated bullae). They all share a common ancestor.  
     The Ring-necked name is not a very good one however. The males certainly do have a cinnamon or chestnut colored ring around their necks, but this is faint and a terrible field mark. It is really only evident in good light, at close range, and on an adult male in full breeding plumage. It was given to them from dead specimens that were held in the hand and so is not very recognizable in the field. They were originally described in 1809.
     A much more appropriate common name is used by others, specially hunters. They are often called Ringbills or Ring-billed Ducks, since the ring is much more noticeable on the bills of both adult males and females. Other common names that hunters use for them include Blackjacks and/or just Jacks due to their dark coloration.

A Ringbill showing both the crescent mark and ring around the bill that are the best field marks.

     But the best field mark, on the drakes (males) at least, is a white bar or crescent-shaped mark along the side that is often visible even from a distance. These medium sized (17" and between 1-2 lbs, drakes being larger) ducks have an overall dark appearance, the backs on drakes being black rather than the grey of their cousins the scaups. They also have a peaked or pointy looking head that has a purplish sheen on males in good light. Adult drakes also have yellow eyes. All in all a handsome duck.

A Blackjack drake

     Although they are diving ducks, these are a bit different from most other divers. For instance, most diving ducks (unlike dabbling or puddle ducks) need to run or patter along the water's surface before being able to take off. Ringbills are very strong fliers and can take off directly from the water with out much or any running necessary.
     Ring-necked Ducks also feed on much more vegetable matter than most other diving ducks (Redheads and Canvasback Ducks being notable exceptions). Three-quarters of their food is plant material throughout most of the year (though while nesting they need much more animal protein, as do the ducklings). Due to this mostly vegetarian diet, Ringnecks are considered to be mild tasting rather than "fishy" like other divers, and are thus favored table fare over them. They respond to hunters' calls and decoys (even those of other duck species) quite well which also makes them popular game birds.
     Ring-billed Ducks appear to be less wary than other diving ducks. Other divers gather in huge rafts, but are often in very deep water and so far in the distance that you cannot get very good views of them, even using binoculars or spotting scopes. You can often get much closer to Ring-necked Ducks before they either fly off or dive under.

A pair of Ringbills, hen to the left.

     Another difference between them and many other divers is that Ringbills prefer much shallower water, often 4' or less, where most of their plant food grows. This means they can utilize some food sources and habitats that many other diving ducks cannot. This includes beaver ponds, flooded fields, storm water control lakes, reservoirs, and just about any fresh body of water (they may use brackish water bays, but tend to stay away from salt water). Blackjacks also can eat a great variety of water plants, whether from flooded fields or even invasive hydrilla.
     This also means you can also find them just about anywhere and makes them much more common in our region than many other diving ducks such as scaup, redheads, or canvasbacks. Ringnecks tend to be in small flocks of half a dozen or so birds around here, but can congregate in the thousands in some of other areas. They also tend to be quite content mixing with rafts of other ducks, whether other divers (especially scaup) or dabbling ducks.

A lone Lesser Scaup drake, a close cousin in the same Genus, swims among Ring-necked drakes.

     Ring-necks can dive 40' or so feet underwater in pursuit of food, but usually make much shorter trips. In fact, they will sometimes just feed on the surface or tip-up much in the manner of dabbling ducks instead of the divers they are.
     Ringbills are powerful fliers. Their small flocks can fly day or night (indeed you can sometimes hear their whistling wings and recognize them for Blackjacks without even having to see them if they're near by and spooked). Blackjacks can travel very long distances, some straying all the way South to Venezuela and across the ocean into Europe. They are only with us during the winter, returning to their breeding grounds in March or April most years.
     Ring-necked Ducks breed mostly in Canada, although they also nest near the Great Lakes and have spread their range into the Northeast. They tend to choose ponds with lots of vegetation and may use the same ponds (and even the same nest) year after year. Older hens lay larger clutches and are more successful than younger ones (although some nest after the first year, many wait until after the second). Females may also dump their eggs into other Ringbill or even scaup nests.

A pair of Ring-necked Ducks, hen to the right.

     Hens nest in very precarious locations. This sometimes consists of just bending some vegetation over and laying the first egg on top of them right on the water. It may only be a couple of inches above the water level on a floating platform. She adds material as she lays a single egg each day until she has her complete compliment of 8-14 olive eggs and the nest is completed.
     Drakes are unusual in that they sometimes stay with the hen even as she's incubating her eggs (though like all ducks, he does not help with raising them). After about 27 days, the precocial young hatch. The next day, they follow the hen, but again differing from other diving ducks, may not look for open water but stay feeding in the aquatic plants near the edges. Ring-necks may creche their young, 1-3 females combining their broods. They can be bullied by larger birds, with Loons and Grebes having been documented as attacking them.
     After about 50 days, the young are fledged and can fly. Though diving ducks may abandon their young before they can fully fly, Ringbills tend to stay with them until they can fly successfully. If they're lucky, they may make it to the record life span of 20 years and 5 months that one banded bird made it to. The toughest task may not just be survival, but finding a mate if they're male. Of all our ducks, none has a more disproportionate male to female ratio than Ringbills. Seventy percent of them are drakes.

A raft of Ringnecks. Can you find the lone female? 

     Ring-necked Ducks, perhaps because of they're adaptability in both habitat and diet, are doing quite well. In fact, they've actually spread their range. Before the 1930's, they were considered rare in the Northeast. By the 1960's they were common. By the 1980's they spread into Alaska. They number now a steady 1.2 million or so and are our most common and widespread diving duck.
    These handsome waterfowl may be widespread and common, but I look forward to seeing them every fall and winter. I like being surprised when encounter them in unusual places and that I can often get better looks at them than I can most other diving ducks. I'm also happy that they've adapted and even spread due to their adaptability, even in our changing world.
     Here's a short video from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel showing them on the water: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLyAuzHGusA

Ring-necked drake displaying

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Fern

     Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a perennial evergreen fern that grows throughout our region. Because its fronds are evergreen and long-lasting, it was a popular Christmas time decoration, and thus the name. Each individual "leaflet" (pinna) looks a bit like a Christmas stocking as well, something that helps to identify and name the fern. Its Genus name comes from the Greek for "many" and "rows" and refers to the large amounts of fruiting dots (called sori) that release spores on the undersides of the leaves.

A Christmas Fern bootie: a leaflet (called a "pinna" in ferns) in the shape of a Christmas stocking.

     This is a very adaptable fern. It can take a variety of growing conditions, though it prefers rich, loamy soil and light shade. Because of its adaptability and evergreen nature, it is a popular garden fern. The root stock (rhizome) is easily divided in the spring and fall to get new plants. Christmas ferns are mostly pest free, though an introduced European aphid, Amphophora ampulatta, sometimes attacks it and other ferns. Even deer tend to leave it alone unless very hungry.
     But there certainly are animals that use it. At least 3 native species of caterpillars feed on it for example. Actually, I had some interesting discussions a couple of years back when several people asked me to identify an insect that was folding and tying together Christmas fern fronds. At first I thought they were a kind of Crambid moth called a Serpentine Webworm (Herpetogramma aeglealis) which is a leaf tier that feeds on ferns and occasionally a couple of other plants.

A couple of bundled up Christmas fern fronds, possibly the work of the newly discovered leaf-tier moth Herpetogramma sphingealis. 

     But then I started finding them in several parks, including in some gardens that had several other fern species, such as Cinnamon and Sensitive ferns which are supposed to be preferred host plants for the caterpillar. What was strange was that all the tied-up fern fronds were exclusively on Christmas fern and not on any of the other ferns.
     So I did some more research and found out that some folks were investigating a potential new moth species discovery in both Canada and Maryland that exclusively used Christmas ferns. The new moth was officially recognized and named in 2011 as Herpetogramma sphingealis (no common name). This moth is both darker and larger than the Serpentine Webworm. I started seeing the bundled up leaves on Christmas ferns in numerous parks all over the DC area, including in Arlington. I'm now convinced that this is that same species, but will have to rear some this summer to confirm (and send it off to some Lepidopterist-expert friends since the only absolute identification is by dissecting genitalia under a scope). It's quite neat to know that people are still discovering new species, even in very developed areas.

Christmas fern fiddleheads unfurling.

     But back to the Christmas fern itself. It's been used by Native American Indians quite extensively. Although many fern fiddleheads (what freshly unfurling fern fronds are called) are edible, apparently only the Cherokee utilized Christmas ferns in this way. The Cherokee also used the roots to treat rheumatism (especially of the hands). A drink was concocted from it to treat fevers, tooth aches, pneumonia, and stomach illnesses as well.
     The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) also made great use of it, particularly to treat their children. Concoctions were used for children's cramps, rheumatism, diarrhea, sore backs, spinal troubles, convulsions, body discolorations, and general listlessness. It has been documented (all these by expert ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman) as being used in adults for speech impediments, tuberculosis, venereal diseases, as a blood purifier, and as a "lady's medicine." The Micmacs and Malecites chewed the roots to treat throat hoarseness.
    So this plant has lot of history to it, though now it's mostly remembered for its holiday decor.

A Christmas Fern colony

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Northern Shoveler

A Northern Shoveler drake.

     The Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) is a very distinctive, medium sized (19" and about a pound and a half) duck. Although the drakes (males) are very colorful, it's their spatulate-shaped beak which stands out the most. It gives the Northern Shoveler (or Shoveller in British English) a variety of its common names used by hunters or regionally: Spoonbill, Shovelbill, Shovelnose, Broadbill, Spoonie, Bootlips, Smilin' Mallard, Broad-faced Mallard, and Neighbor's Mallard (the last three due to the green-headed resemblance to the common mallard). Some even believe it (along with the three other Shoveler species worldwide) deserve their own genus, Spatula, based on the beak shape. It's specific name clypeata also means "shield" due to the shape of the beak.
     The spoon-shaped beak is specialized to help the duck strain out food. It is not only very broad, but has about 110 projections, comb-like "teeth" called lamellae that they use to strain their food. Spoonbills use these to filter out all sorts of food, but in particular small macro-invertebrates and plankton. Of all our dabbling ducks, they ingest the most animal matter. About a third of their diet consists of small aquatic organisms.
     Dabblers, or puddle ducks, are what most people envision when they think of a duck. They take off directly from the water, do not regularly dive underwater for food, and eat mostly plant material. Diving ducks on the other hand dive under water to catch their food, which consists of much more animal matter, and need to run across the water's surface before they can fly. Shovelers however eat a larger proportion of animal material than other puddle ducks. They rarely, they can dive, and do not generally tip bottom-up like other dabblers to reach their food.
     Spoonies tend to just dabble and skim their big bills along the surface, catching whatever food they can. They sometimes seem to cooperate in getting their food, occasionally pin-wheeling among each other and catching what they kick-up for each other. At other times they just line up and cover a wide area. They may also follow other water birds, filtering what ever they churn up. Shovelers prefer freshwater in the warmer months, but will utilize brackish bays and estuaries while wintering. They are also not as picky about where they feed as far as water quality, sometimes utilizing stagnant or polluted pools that other waterfowl avoid. Here's a short video showing a Northern Shoveler drake dabbling:

     Because a higher proportion of their food is animal matter, these ducks are not considered good eating like other ducks who eat more plant material. It is believed that such a diet taints the flavor of the duck. Their dark meat is not favored by hunters, though they can be decoyed easily, and so they are not heavily hunted.
     Spoonbills breed well up North in late spring, but they pair up while wintering in the South. They nest in Canada, the Great Lakes region, and in Northern pothole country. The drake (male) stays paired with the hen much longer than most other ducks, though he (like all other ducks) does not assist in raising the young. He will accompany her well into the incubation period, long after other male ducks have abandoned their own mates.

A pair of Spoonbills, hen to the right.

     Shovelers will nest farther from water than most other ducks, over 100 yards away at times, but they prefer to nest closer when they can. The hen lays 6-14 pale greenish eggs in a shallow depression on the ground, often near the place she nested the year before. If she is flushed off the nest, she will sometimes defecate on the eggs before leaving, perhaps in an attempt to protect them. If the nest is destroyed, she will often re-nest like many other ducks also do, but the second nest will have fewer eggs. After 24 or so days of incubation, the precocial young are born. In under two months, they are fledged and can fly.
     Northern Shovelers are strong fliers. Though they may appear a bit ungainly due to the over-sized bills, they are also very agile. Their tight-knit, small flocks (5-10 birds is the norm) fly erratically, swerving, diving and circling. During migration, they regularly end up in Central America, with some having been found in Trinidad and as far South as Colombia. Some fly from Alaska to Hawaii as part of their normal migration as well.
     Though not common locally, Northern Shovelers are very common and widespread ducks. They are more usual in the West and Central parts of the USA. They also range into Eurasia. Due to their strong flying ability, Spoonies have been found on every continent except Antarctica. The European ones regularly stray into Africa and some vagrant Asian ones have even ended up in Australia.
     Northern Shoveler populations have been very healthy since the 1960's. In fact, they are considered the second most common ducks in North America. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated their population at 4.6 million strong in 2009. Regardless, since they're not as common locally and stand out due to their appearance, I enjoy whenever I find them. Here's a short video from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel to wrap up:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Green-winged Teal

A Green-winged Teal drake.

     Everything is diminutive when it comes to Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca). They are the smallest dabbling ducks in the Americas. Dabblers, or puddle ducks, are the typical ducks who tip their bottoms up to reach food below the water's surface and who can take off directly up into the air. Contrast that with diving ducks who dive under to get their food (which includes more animal matter than dabblers usually do) and who need to run along the water surface to take off. Green-wings average about 14" and weigh less than a pound.

A Greenwing tipping up to reach for vegetation.

     Now all teal duck species are all small to begin with. In fact, "teal" comes from a medieval English word "tele" which actually means "small." But Green-winged Teal are the smallest of the batch. Indeed, hunters sometimes refer to them as a "Pound of Butter" as they weigh about a pound.

A handsome Green-winged Teal drake (male) dwarfed in size when compared to a Canada Goose.

     Green-winged Teal are very handsome birds though. The drakes (males) are considered by some to be close rivals to Wood Ducks in their beauty. In good light, the colors really come out, including their rusty heads and mask they have around their eyes. One of the best identification features though is the white bar that comes up along where their shoulder and wing would be. This also helps to distinguish them from the Eurasian Teal that is an occasionally vagrant or accidental from overseas, getting blown over and which lacks the white bar. The green speculum or patch on their wing though that give them their names is often difficult to see and does not make a reliable field mark.
     Green-winged Teal diets are 90% vegetable matter. This consists especially of small seeds such as those of smartweeds, sedges, and rushes. They will also eat corn and grains among other things however. Though they are dabblers, they also are the ducks most likely to feed on mud flats.

A Green-winged hen (female) feeding on the surface behind a drake.

     These small ducks breed well up North, in the boreal, tundra and prairie pothole regions. They migrate South early though and can stick around with us for a good part of the winter if it stays warm and the water remains unfrozen. Most however concentrate their numbers in Louisiana and Texas. Some even make it all the way down to Colombia.
   When nesting, Green-winged Teal have fairly large egg clutches, averaging 7-15 olive eggs at a time. They can nest quite a distance from water at times, up to a mile on occasion. Their eggs hatch quickly in under 3 weeks. They are also the fastest growers of our ducks, reaching maturity in less than 40 days and are ready to breed in one year.
     These means that they can be found in large numbers, forming huge flocks at times (outside the breeding season) of over a hundred birds at a time. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated their population at 3.4 million in 2009. Greenwing flocks are very compact and fly very quickly. They often circle and false-land repeatedly, reminiscent of a flock of pigeons, if you've ever seen them over cut corn fields. They twist and turn in amazing coordination, not bumping into one another despite their tightly packed ranks. When they finally do decide to land, they all seem to want to do it at the same time it seems.
     I once observed a large flock of 50 or more Green-winged teal that circled the blind I was occupying on an extremely cold winter day just as the sun came out. After repeated circling, they all tried to land on what they thought was open shallow water right in front of me. Instead it was frozen solid. It was amusing to watch the little ducks slip, skid, slide, tumble and crash on top of the ice all at once. They quickly recovered though and flew up into the air in unison, no worse for wear.
     These little ducks may be small, but what they lack in size they make up for in character and appearance. It's always a joy to see them on the marsh. Here are a couple of videos from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel that shows them feeding (including dabbling) and among some larger cousins:


Tuesday, December 15, 2015


A Gadwall drake preening itself.

     The Gadwall (Anas strepera) is an often overlooked duck. The drakes (males) have an understated elegance about them. Not gaudy like some other drakes, they still have some fine features, especially when seen close up. From a distance though, they appear like a grey duck with a black butt. This gives them their other common name of "Gray Ducks." Though never abundant, they are very widespread, living in Europe and Asia as well as most of North America.
     The males not only have a black butt, but a black beak as well. In profile they have a very angular head, giving them one of their other common names: Square-heads, though this is mostly a name given them by hunters, along with just calling them "Gaddies." No one is sure of the origin of the name Gadwall, but some think it's from the Anglo-Saxon "gad" meaning "point" maybe having to do with the fine "teeth" they have along their bills.

This Gaddy hen shows the typical white speculum wing patch, but this is often hidden. 

     Many identification books tell you to look for the white "speculum" or white feather patch near the end of their wings, but frankly, that's not always easy to see, except maybe in flight where it's conspicuous. Better to look for that overall grey duck with the black butt to ID a male Gaddy. The female is easily confused with other hens when the white speculum isn't visible however.
     These birds are usually in pairs or very small flocks, often mixed with other "puddle" or "dabbling" ducks such as Mallards and Pintails. They also like to stick to open, shallow and fresh water. Typical of the puddle ducks, they usually feed on or near the surface, tipping up to reach food below when necessary. Unlike many other "dabblers " though, they can also dive to reach food beyond their reach. They are also known for stealing food from coots or diving ducks when they surface. Gadwalls prefer to eat seeds and other vegetation. Plants makes up 98% of their diet. Like other puddle ducks, they can take off straight into the air without needing to run along the surface like diving ducks need to do.

A Gadwall pair, hen to the left, with the white speculum that's not visible on the male in this photo. Note his black bill.

      As widespread as these ducks are, they actually were not common in the East. Before the 1950's it was considered rare to see one. But in the 1920's, hunters from Long Island introduced them from the West and their numbers have been steadily increasing since then. Now it is not surprising to see them, though again, they're never common.
     Gaddies prefer to nest on islands when they can. They hide their ground nests in long grass, laying 7-13 white eggs in them. They are late nesters, arriving late onto their breeding grounds, which are mostly North of here and concentrated in the Northern prairie states as well. They have a short incubation period for a duck, with the eggs hatching in under 4 weeks. The precocial young can fly less than 2 months later. Gadwalls are prone to nest parasitism. Not only will they lay their eggs in each others nests, but Scaup ducks often lay their eggs in Gaddy nests too.
     These are quiet ducks for the most part, not standing out in a crowd and liking to fly at night. But I enjoy spotting them, perhaps because they are not that common and are not show-offs.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Wood Ducks

A Wood Duck drake

     Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) are arguably the most beautiful ducks in North America. They have a variety of common names that are sometimes used for them. The colonists used to call them Summer Ducks, while regionally they are sometimes still referred to as Carolina Ducks, Swamp Ducks, Acorn Ducks, or just called Woodies. Their scientific name "Aix" comes the Greek for "waterfowl" while "sponsa" refers to "betrothed" or "beautiful bride" in Latin due to the beauty of the species. It is the only member of this Genus in North America (the only other Aix is the Mandarin Duck of Asia, Aix galericulata). Being a true all-American and handsome duck, it should surprise no one that it once was a candidate for our national symbol.

A pair of Wood Ducks, hen in front.

     Wood Ducks are now one of the most common ducks throughout North America, perhaps the third most common on the Eastern coast. But that was not always the case. By the early 1900's, Woodies were in serious danger of extinction due to market hunting for their meat and fine feathers (a staple on ladies' hats and fly tying), as well as destruction of wooded swamp habitats and especially the old trees with cavities needed for nesting.

Wood Duck feathers were popular for such things as ladies' hats and fly tying.

     By 1918 however, the Migratory Bird Act was passed and all waterfowl received protection. Thanks to the advent of nest boxes that conservation and hunting groups put up for them to nest in, Wood Ducks have made a remarkable recovery. This was probably helped along with the resurgence of beavers with the wooded ponds they construct and which these ducks prefer. They still benefit of course from such fees as hunting licenses (including the mandatory Migratory Bird Stamps and such needed prior to hunting) and the tax on all hunting related equipment such as lead-free ammo. Their greatest threat now, as for any waterfowl, is the need for wetland habitats.
     As mentioned, these are cavity nesting ducks. They normally use dead trees (snags) with large cavities in them. But they readily use man-made nest boxes as well. The female usually chooses the nest site (which may be used over and over again if they're successful) and she does little more than pluck a few feathers to place inside the hole. Hens lays 7-15 eggs which are incubated for about a month. Wood Ducks are the only ducks in North America that commonly nest twice in a single season.

A Wood Duck nest box. This one has predator guards to help prevent animals such as raccoons  from raiding them.

     Wood Ducks are well known for egg dumping. This is when a hen lays her eggs into another wood duck's nest. This seems to occur more with inexperienced first year birds, but can also happen when there are not enough nest sites available. Interestingly, it can also happen when nest boxes are too close to each other as well, regardless of how many nesting cavities or boxes are available. Normally nests containing more than 15 eggs are assumed to be dump nests. These have a much less chance of successful incubation and up to 30 eggs can be dumped in one single nest.
     Once the precocious young are born, they all remain inside the nest-hole for about a day. After that, they all climb up from inside the tree trunk or box using their claws and hooked beak-tips (features few other ducks have) and simply jump out. Their mom only helps by calling for them from below. They can fall upwards of 30' although 8'-10' is more typical. The young cannot fly of course, but seem to just bounce off the ground or into the water, little worse for wear regardless of the height fallen.
     Twice I've been lucky enough to catch this remarkable event, which rarely lasts more than 5 minutes once the first chick free falls. Once when I was fishing along the Shenandoah as a teen, I heard a Wood Duck hen calling. When I turned to look, I just caught the last two chicks plummeting into the river and being led away. It truly was a wonderful experience.

A Wood Duck hen leads her chicks at dusk.

     The second time was a bit stranger. I actually was at the National Zoo when a group of people in addition to myself saw several little ducklings emerge from a nesting box they had in one of their open air pens. However, the second to the last chick actually got its foot caught (maybe because of its long hooked claws?) in some screen that was on a little ramp by the nesting box leading into the water. The little guy looked to be in trouble and was half submerged, though its head was above the water. After realizing it was stuck, I hopped the fence and quickly tried to free it. Frankly, it was practically free already by the time I got there. Unfortunately for me, that was the exact moment a zoo keeper walked by. He was a bit upset that I was in the pen... Thankfully the rest of the people that were there explained my good intentions and the zoo keeper was nice enough to not cause me any trouble.

     Here's a short video of some woodie ducklings following their mother:     

These are juvenile Woodies, haven't quite gotten all their beautiful plumage yet.

     Woodies eat a variety of different foods, but are for the most part herbivores. As their name of Acorn Duck implies, they heavily favor acorns and other nuts, swallowing them whole. But they eat a great variety of other seeds too. I've witnessed flocks of 30 or so dropping into cut cornfields at dusk to glean spilled corn for example. Woodies seem to like duck weed as well. When young in particular, they will feed on insects and other invertebrates. Some stomach sample studies reveal what appears to be quite a preference for spiders as well. They seem to dislike shellfish and mollusks though. Wood Ducks themselves are considered good eating, some think due to their herbivore diet.
     Here's a short video of a pair on a duckweed-covered pond from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel:

     Wood Ducks are fairly swift and agile fliers. Some have timed them flying up to 47 miles per hour. I've always marveled at their agility when flying through flooded timber, even in very dark conditions. Their eyes (which are a striking red on the drakes (males)) are proportionally the largest of any of our ducks in size, perhaps helping them see in dim light. They are also quite fast on their feet. I've seen males chasing females, especially around March in our region, on merry foot-chases through the woods, sometimes oblivious to my presence in their ardor to get the female.
     The vast majority of Wood Ducks are gone for now, most migrating out of the DC area by November or so (thus the name "Summer Ducks"), but they'll be back soon enough. I look forward to seeing them once again flying through flooded woods, the drakes giving their whistles, while the hens their distinctive "Oooo-eeek" calls... one of my favorite sounds at dawn and dusk...

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Marcescence and the Legend of the Evergreens

An American Beech tree holding onto its leaves through most of the winter

     While many people know the difference between deciduous trees who lose their leaves during a short time in the Fall, and the evergreen plants who stay green all winter long, few have heard about marcescensce. To be honest, while I knew about the phenomenon of how certain species of trees held onto their dead leaves well into winter, I did not know the term until not long ago. I was attending the graduation of a master naturalist class and marcescensce was the topic of one graduates' presentation. That's one of the neat things about being a naturalist, you learn something new all the time.

An Ironwood (Musclewood) with dried marcescent leaves hanging on into winter

     Leaves are shed because deciduous trees are trying to conserve water that may be hard to get once it freezes during winter. Since the shorter days of winter are not conducive for effective photosynthesis anyways, the leaves are no longer needed. So the chlorophyll is no longer produced and we get to see the hidden Fall colors that often had been masked by the green chlorophyll.  An abscission layer, sometimes called a separation zone, is formed between the tree's petiole and leaf that effectively cuts off the leaf and allows it to fall off.

A Pin Oak has had the top part of its leaves blown off but retains the lower ones.

     But some trees, in particular the oaks, beech, hornbeams, and musclewood trees, do not form this layer and the leaves do not just fall off. In fact, some may be retained well into the winter or into early spring, where new growing leaves can finally cause them to drop. Strong winds might still blow off the dead leaves, particular those at the top of the tree first, but otherwise they stay connected. Some also suspect that smaller trees and lower branches may have more marcescent leaves to allow them to get sunlight for a while longer since the higher leaves have fallen off first. Others suspect it may shield lower branches and twigs from additional predation. Marcescense  is the term given to the retention of dead plant material that is normally shed in other trees.

Ironwood (Musclewood) leaves in winter still hanging onto the branch.

     Why some trees retain their dead leaves and others don't is not completely understood. Some theorize that it may help with predation so hungry herbivores (such as deer) chew on the hanging dead leaves while hopefully leaving the buds and twigs alone, but no one is really sure. Regardless, it is easy to notice these trees these days prior to the strong winds of winter. While I say no one is sure as to why this retention of leaves may have evolved, there is a legend told by the Seneca people, the westernmost nation of the Haudenosanee people (whom some people call the Iroquois) which explains why this came to be.
     I've told this tale many times, though I take some liberties to replace some of the trees they mention that are found in their New York home with some more appropriate to our area. So I substitute the Tamarack (Larch) tree they have with Bald Cypress for example. My version of the story goes like this:
     A long time ago, the continuous struggles of the spirits of winter versus the spirits of summer were taking place and certain beings were choosing sides. While many of the trees tried to stay neutral and just submitted their colors and leaves until the summer spirits won out, a few were determined to show resistance and decided to ally themselves with the summer spirits. The Conifer Tribe was among these and decided to hold a meeting to decide how to best show their support and resistance.
     So all the members of the tribe gathered, with White Pine taking the lead and telling them of a magic elixir it had brewed that would allow them to stay green all winter long and thus declare their support for the spirits of summer. The American Beech heard about this and asked to take part in the protest. But Bald Cypress took offense at this. He pointed out that Beech was not a member of his Conifer Tribe and should not be allowed to participate.
     While White Pine acknowledged that this was the case, he insisted that the pines and other conifers needed allies, and that if the oaks, beeches, and musclewoods wanted to show their support, they should be allowed to do so. This so upset Bald Cypress that it stormed out of the council, refusing to take part in any more of the activities of the tribe.
     When the time came to give each tribal member a dose of the magical evergreen elixir, the Conifers decided to hold one dose for Bald Cypress in case he returned, but he never did. As it was, there was not enough to share with the beeches, oaks, hornbeams, and musclewoods, so they did not get any.  
     When the spirits of winter saw this show of resistance and protest, they howled and caused it to be the coldest, snowiest season in memory. The bitter winds blew and the harsh cold attacked the trees with fury. Most of the trees lost their leaves and remain deciduous to this day.
     The Conifers though, along with a few other rebels, managed to stay green or hold onto their leaves. All of them around here that is except for Bald Cypress. Having not drank of the magical elixir, it remains one of the few members of the Conifer tribe to lose its leaves. The beeches, oaks, and musclewoods did not have the benefit of the magical potion. They were battered by the wind and cold, some eventually losing their leaves, but most hung on.
     They knew if they held on long enough, the spirits of summer would eventually prevail. So they may lose their colors, lose limbs and some leaves, but they continue to rebel. So it is to this day that these trees retain their leaves, challenging the cold and wind, holding onto to the end of winter when they can. It is said that when the wind blows and tries to knock off the leaves, those who know the tale and remember the past know what is really happening and can hear what others do not. For if you listen to the rustling leaves hard enough, you can hear that what they're actually doing is laughing at the spirits of winter, secure in the knowledge that summer will one day again prevail, with the support of the allies among the trees...