Winter waterbirds have arrived

By Susan Campbell

The arrival of cold weather in the Sandhills means that our local ponds and lakes will become the winter home to more than two dozen different species of ducks, geese and swans. Over the years, as development has added water features both large and small to the landscape, the diversity of our aquatic visitors has increased significantly. Although we are all familiar with our local mallards and Canada geese, nowadays from November through March, observant bird watchers can expect to see ring-necked duck, buffleheads, loons, cormorants, pied-billed grebes and American coots, to name a handful.

Certainly, the most abundant and widespread species is the ring-necked duck, flocks of which can be seen diving in shallow ponds and coves for aquatic invertebrate prey, dining on everything from leeches to dragonflies, midges to mosquitoes, water bugs to beetles. They obviously get their name from the indistinct rusty ring at the base of their necks.  Also look for iridescent blue heads, black sides and gray backs on males. The females, as with all of the true duck species, are nondescript: light brown all over but, like the males, have a distinctive grayish blue bill with a white band around it.

Perhaps the most noticeable of our wintering waterfowl would be the buffleheads. They form small groups that dive in deeper water, feeding on vegetation and invertebrates. The males have a bright white hood and body with iridescent dark green back, face and neck. They also sport bright orange legs and feet that they will flash during confrontations. The females of this species are characteristically drab, mainly brown with the only contrast being a small white cheek patch. Interestingly, the bufflehead is the one species of migratory duck that actually mates for life. This is generally a trait found only in the largest of waterfowl: swans and geese.

There are several types of aquatic birds, similar to ducks, that can be identified if you’re lucky enough to spot them; you’ll likely need a pair of binoculars. Common loons can occasionally be seen diving for fish on larger lakes in winter, and even more so during spring and fall migration. Their size and shape are distinctive (as is their yodeling song; unfortunately, they tend not to sing while they are here). It is important to be aware that we have another visitor that can be confused with loons: the double-crested cormorant, which is actually not a duck at all. This glossy dark swimmer, along with its cousin the anhinga, is more closely related to seabirds (e.g., boobies and gannets), and is a very proficient diver with a sharply serrated bill adapted for catching fish. It is not uncommon to see cormorants in their “drying” pose, when their wings are almost fully extended. (It’s the slight droop that makes them look sort of comical.) Since their feathers are not as waterproof as those of diving ducks, they only enter water to feed and bathe. Most of their time is spent sitting on a dock or some sort of perch trying to dry off.

Two other species of waterbirds can be found regularly at this time of year: pied-billed grebes and American coots. Pied-billed grebes are the smallest of the swimmers we see in winter, with light brown plumage, short thick bills and bright white bottoms. Surprisingly, they are very active swimmers. They can chase down small fish in just about any depth of water. American coots — black, stocky birds with white bills — are scavengers, feeding mainly in aquatic vegetation. They can make short dives but are too buoyant to remain submerged for more than a few seconds. Given their long legs and well-developed toes, they are also adept at foraging on foot. You might see them feeding on grasses along the edge of larger bodies of water or even on the edge of golf course water hazards.

In the coming weeks, if you find yourself in Lakeview, near the dam at Thagard Lake in Whispering Pines, or at a good vantage point along Lake Pinehurst, scan the surface for rafts of floating waterbirds. Of course, you will most likely need your binoculars in order to better make out the shapes and color patterns. But if you can get a good look, take the time to enjoy some of these wonderful, web-footed winter visitors from the far North. PS

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