On the Wild Side!
E-Newsletter for the Chesapeake Bay Field Office


Tundra swan. Photo by Glen Smart.
Tundra swan. Photo by Glen Smart

Waterfowl Return

And just when it seems that all the wildlife is moving out of the Chesapeake, waterfowl return to spend the winter. Swans, geese, and ducks from Alaska, Canada, north central United States, and New England seek out the wetlands, shorelines and open water critical to their survival.

The tundra swan travels the farthest, more than 4000 miles, to winter primarily on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake. These large white birds with black bills and straight necks flock together on shallow ponds. Another swan, the mute swan, is a nonnative, invasive bird from Europe that competes with other waterfowl for food and habitat. Orange bills and S-shaped necks distinguish invasive mute from our native the tundra swan.

Autumn skies would not be complete without migrating geese. Constant honking signals the arrival of the familiar Canada goose, with its black and white head, brown back and pale breast. A favorite quarry of hunters and bird watchers, Canada geese feed in wetlands or farm fields. A lesser known visitor is the snow goose. As its name implies, the snow goose is white except for black wing tips and pink feet and bills.

Ducks are by their method of feeding; dabbling and diving. Dabbling ducks feed by straining food from the water's surface or by submerging their heads. Plants make up most dabblers' diets. Dabblers take flight by leaping from the surface of the water and can be found on rivers and close to shorelines.

The most common of the dabblers is the mallard duck. The male has a dark green head while the female is dusky brown. Another dabbler is the black duck. Both male and female black ducks look similar to mallard hens, only darker. These two often interbreed. Other dabblers include the American widgeon, green-winged teal, northern pintail, and northern shoveler.

Diving ducks have legs located to the rear of the body, making walking on land difficult. Diving ducks swim underwater, pursuing fish or searching for bay grass roots and seeds and small animals. They must run along the surface of the water to take flight. Diving ducks are separated into bay, sea and river ducks.

Photo of bufflehead and greater scaup. Photo by DonnaDewhurst, USFWS
Photo of bufflehead and greater scaup. Photo by DonnaDewhurst, USFWS

Bay ducks feed in shallow foraging for both plants and animals. The most famous is the male canvasback, with its sloping black bill, red eyes and head, and white back. Canvasbacks congregate on the water in large flocks known as rafts. Redhead ducks are similar to canvasbacks but with shorter bills and round heads. Other bay ducks include the greater and lesser scaup.

Canvasback duck. Photo by Eugene Haster, USFWS
Canvasback duck. Photo by Eugene Haster, USFWS

Sea ducks are found in deeper, open waters of the Chesapeake, feeding primarily on crabs, clams and barnacles. The long-tailed duck sports brown and white colors and long tail feathers. Sloping foreheads identify the white-winged, surf, and black scoters. The ruddy duck, like the canvasback, masses in rafts. The bufflehead is a small black and white duck. The male has an easily identified puffy head.

The three river ducks are all mergansers. Mergansers eat fish from fresh and brackish water. Mergansers are identified by long thin serrated bills and crested heads. The red-breasted, hooded, and common merganser all overwinter in the Chesapeake Bay area.


Last updated: November 16, 2010