Note: The wild ducks in the top row from left to right - pintail, blue-winged teal, mallard & in the bottom row - goldeneye, hooded merganser & lesser scaup. All are drakes in spring plumage. Click on image to enlarge.
"Remembering farm ponds of the past and ducks I have known."
When I was a young man the farmland was dotted with small ponds and potholes. These numerous water holes were favorite places for the many different kinds of ducks that lived or migrated through southern Wisconsin.
In the spring you never knew what you might see bobbing up and down on the water. Where the ice didn't cover the river in late February, the diving ducks would appear in small groups. I've spent countless hours watching them with binoculars from the car window. These were ducks that only show up for a short time each spring, then migrate further north. The first to arrive were the common goldeneyes. What a striking sight the males are, sporting a white body with dark green head and snow white spot under a yellow gold eye. Their wonderful spring courtship was a sight I looked forward to every spring.
Also coming back early to Wisconsin were the hooded mergansers and the larger common mergansers. They too will stop on open water to dive for small fish during migration. The drake hooded merganser is a sharp contrast of black & white. He can open the showy white crest on the back of his shiny black head. The merganser's bill is narrow and edged with tooth like barbs, which help the merganser hold on to fish.
The common merganser is the size of a mallard or about half the size of a loon and often seen in groups. Like many diving birds they spend most of their time on the water. They may seem awkward on land because their feet are so far back towards their tail. This makes them great underwater swimmers but not so good at walking on land.
I remember watching the greater and lesser scaup as they dove for aquatic insects and plants. The males have whitish bodies with the larger greater scaup sporting a lustrous green head and the smaller lesser scaup's being deep purple.
The females of all the species of wild ducks are very beautiful in their own right but not as brightly colored as the males.
By mid-march other diving ducks would stop while on migration. With binoculars in one hand and a drawing pencil in the other, I was able to sketch ducks like the bufflehead, canvasback, redhead, ruddy duck and the coot. These are all ducks I don't usually see in southern Wisconsin in the summer.
I spent many mid-September evenings hiding in the reeds on a small pond, watching the flocks of puddle ducks coming in. My sketchpads are full of drawings of mallards, pintails, blue and green winged teal, wood ducks, black ducks, shovellers, widgeon and gadwall. There was nothing like the sound of a hundred wings as they rushed, whistling over your head, landing with a splash.
Birds of a feather do flock together in the case of ducks. They rely on their own communities for finding food, direction and safety.
In the fall it wasn't unusual to see a large flock of migrating ducks most any day. It was likely that some of these flocks were of 500 ducks or more. Today the big flocks are gone and even small flocks are seldom seen here.
I missed those days when the skies were filled with wild ducks with their wings flashing in the sun. I owe them a great deal for what I've learned from them over the years.
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