You don’t live long in Chesapeake Bay country before realizing that waterfowl, the Anatidae, is a big part of our identity. My rural home county in Maryland, Talbot, is crisscrossed by tidal creeks and marshes, giving refuge to the resident, migrating, and wintering birds. This time of year we are awakened by the sounds of the hunter’s booming guns and the honking of geese moving from field to cove, and back again when they feel it’s safe.
Every mid-November, just as the migrators are arriving, Easton hosts its famous Waterfowl Festival, doubling or trebling the population of this small town for four fun-filled days. Anything that has even a remote connection to waterfowl is displayed, bought and sold, traded, demonstrated, eaten, and envied by the wandering crowds. The wildlife art including paintings, photographs, sculpture, and carvings is world class, with much of the proceeds from their sales going to waterfowl conservation. http://www.WaterfowlFestival.org
Two of the most popular venues of the festival are the demonstration of the talented canine retrievers at a local pond and the duck and goose calling competition in the high school auditorium. The soft mouthed dogs are magnificent as they plunge into the cold water and faithfully retrieve the waterfowl for their waiting masters. The World Waterfowl Calling Championships are serious affairs, with both adult and child divisions. The deceived waterfowl will not stand a chance when these artists get to their blinds.
Speaking of retrievers, let me share this anecdote about my dog Cinder, may she RIP. She was half Siberian Husky and half Black Lab. I can testify that she never received a lick of training from me, but she was still a retriever of sorts. Our neighbor and accomplished hunter, Phil, was puzzled why his recently shot ducks and geese would mysteriously disappear from his porch stoop, while I was grateful to the considerate hunter who was gifting me a growing pile of un-plucked waterfowl on my stoop. We finally caught sheepish Cinder in the act, dragging the fowl across the yard to her master’s doorstep. It’s in their blood.
Identification of the 8 species of swans and 15 species of geese is straight forward. We all likely learned about these birds from childhood picture books and nursery rhymes. Most of these are monogamous and many bond for life. It’s with the 57 species of the more diverse and colorful ducks where the ID’s become more taxing and the lifestyles more risque with multiple sexual partners, brood parasitism, hybridization, and bizarre reproductive anatomy. Check out my posting of 2/10/2018, a book review of “The Evolution of Beauty” by Prum, for more details.
The ubiquitous Mallard is probably the most recognized and common duck worldwide and the parent species of most of the domestic “barnyard” ducks. But despite its rather striking male attire it just doesn’t get any respect. Some have attempted to remedy this by putting the emphasis on the second syllable of “mallard” and add a slight French accent for good measure. It hasn’t worked. The overexposed Mallard is one of the herbivorous dabbling ducks that feed on the water’s surface or on anything within reach on the bottom. That accounts for the common “bottoms-up” shots of these ducks.
Diving ducks such as scoters, eiders, and mergansers are carnivores, feeding on fish, mollusks, and aquatic invertebrates. Observing and photographing them is a challenge. Just when you get them in your field-of-view they dive. While underwater you guess where they’ll resurface and get all your exposure factors just right for the perfect shot, but are more often wrong than right. Sometimes I think they are playing games with us photographers. Unlike the vocal dabblers, the divers are generally silent.
Yesterday I noticed some diving ducks from the Knapp’s Narrows drawbridge, on my way to Tilghman Island. A quick U-turn and stealthy approach while hiding behind a concrete embankment allowed my all-time closest photos of the Long-tailed Duck. This gorgeous diving duck, formerly known as the “Oldsquaw”, is a wintertime visitor from the Arctic. It’s unique in that it goes through 3 different plumages each year.
The best place to see Snow Geese around here requires a short drive east to Bombay Hook NWR on Delaware Bay. Earlier this week that drive did not disappoint. At some distance across the marsh you could make out a long white line caused by uncountable thousands of these rafting geese. Every five minutes or so, apparently spooked by an overflying harrier or eagle, the flock would rise up like a giant white amoeba, hover over the swamp, and then gently settle back again to the surface.
The Anatidae family is part of the larger Anseriformes order that also includes the Screamers of South America. People that know these things point out that all the Anseriforme tribes of waterfowl favor the southern hemisphere with many of the more primitive species found solely south of the equator, whereas none of our northern waterfowl are exclusive to the northern hemisphere. All this suggests that our swans, geese, and ducks likely arose from a common primitive ancestor in the south, possibly from Australia.
Each fall and winter I put on an extra layer of down and take a hot coffee to some prime waterfront location in hopes of seeing and photographing the waterfowl. The fact that many of them are just here for a few short cold months makes me anxious to see them before I escape to Florida. They are clearly much hardier than me since many will never venture much further south than the Chesapeake before returning again to breed on the remote tundra.