Spring Update: Waterfowl

By Ken Marsh

No luck this morning on my annual quest for Morchella, but it’s early yet. The springtime dance has barely started here at north latitude 61.2 degrees. We’re getting close, though. The birch buds are just one sunny afternoon away from popping the country into an explosion of green. The morels will appear soon after, but for now signs of the season can be found in the arrival of winged things.

They’ve grappled with the winds, crossed swaths of open sea, and pushed through high mountain passes, yet now freshly arrived in Southcentral Alaska, the birds of spring look generally no worse for the wear. Every day brings new raptors and songbirds of all kinds – birds large and small – but I’m particularly interested in waterfowl. Look up toward the horizon here and you’re likely to see them passing in flocks, or hear their cries in the distance. Geese, cranes, and ducks of many species are winging on to nesting grounds; some venues are close by, others remain ice- and snow-covered two more mountain ranges and many hundreds of miles to the north.

An Arctic tern, seen on Sunday, May 9, stretches its wings after a long flight from the southern tip of South America.

I encountered my first Arctic terns of the year over the weekend, world-champion migrators known for their biannual, 30,000-kilometer (or more than 18,000-mile) round-trip trek between the Antarctic and Arctic circles. Those around Anchorage appeared to be setting up to nest around town in their usual summer spots. They seemed not only healthy after their long flights, but saucy, screaming at gulls and magpies that passed too closely by.

A pair of gadwalls are seen feeding on Sunday evening. The hen, in the foreground, can be distinguished from a female mallard by the white speculum seen here on its wing.

Newly arrived duck species also crossed my radar on Sunday. My first gadwalls of the year appeared locally, a couple pairs in different waters. Drakes guarded hens closely on Sunday, threatening the occasional intruding greenhead mallard. Called gray ducks by some, gadwalls are appreciated by many for their beautifully understated breeding plumage.

The gadwall drake’s breeding dress includes jet-black bottom, red-brown patches on the forewings, and handsome tweed flanks over which lightly colored hackles are elegantly draped. The hens, meanwhile, resemble female mallards. So much so that even experts sometimes get confused.

One September day decades ago, after hunting ducks in the marshes near Anchorage, a friend and I were stopped by a federal wildlife agent at a check station. The agent needed to inspect our harvests and record the number and species of ducks we’d bagged. Dutifully, we turned over our birds and the agent began calling out the tally to a partner who recorded the count on a tablet. When the agent picked up a medium-sized brown duck and cried, “Mallard!” my friend corrected him. “No, that’s a gadwall.”

The agent began to argue and my friend, a police officer with a booming voice, pushed back. The exchange got a little loud, so I stood by and let the guys go at it, in a verbal sense. In the end, my friend pointed out the white speculum on the bird’s wing, distinctive to gadwalls. Mallards, he noted, have blue speculums. It was a valuable learning moment for the wildlife agent, though my friend continues to this day to shake his head and mutter when reminded of that encounter.

A gadwall drake, left, and hen take a break on a handy beaver log.

After time spent watching gadwalls, I heard a higher-pitched quack that I recognized immediately. I craned my neck, searching, when they flew by me like a squadron of tiny jets: Green-winged teal. Two vibrantly-colored drakes were competing for a fast-flying hen.

Green-winged teal are small ducks, about a third the size of a mallard, but what they lack in size they make up for in flying agility and, the males, in vibrant breeding colors. The little ducks’ swift twists and turns in flight no doubt save them frequently from hungry raptors. The males’ rusty-red heads are highlighted by broad, iridescent-green stripes that sweep from the eyes down to the base of the skull. Their flank feathers resemble the finest tweed and are topped by long gray saddle hackles that hang over white, black-bordered rumps.

The hens, in keeping with maintaining low profiles from predators while eggs are incubated and young tended, are a dull brown.

A green-winged teal drake, named for the species’ iridescent green wing speculum, cruises a wetland shoreline for food.

Later in the evening I found a pair of common mergansers. These fish-eating waterfowl can be found even in the winter in Southcentral Alaska, as long as open water is available. They’re hardy birds and, on Sunday evening, were obviously feeling frisky.

At one point the male headed my way, white chest offset by its dark green head. It seemed to clutch something in its scarlet-colored bill. At first it resembled a bit of foliage, which seemed odd for this species to be eating. On second glance, I realized the male actually had the female’s head crest clutched firmly in its serrated bill. The female, meanwhile, was completely submerged while the male “rode” it.

Turns out, I was witnessing a private moment. After a minute or two, the male released the female who shook itself dry and continued on as if nothing had happened.

All in all, it was an evening well spent in the wetlands close to home. I’ll keep on with my spring rite of hunting for wild mushrooms. But not at the expense of watching the birds return to add color and music to the gentle season’s palette.


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