When the ponds, lakes and streams freeze over during the cold winter months, it is easy to believe that all of the waterbird life has headed south for the season. But our north is another bird’s south. In this case it is the ducks and water birds of the north that migrate south to Connecticut during the harsh weather. Most of the birds hug the unfrozen coastline chasing prey. Some can be found traveling through unfrozen freshwater in search of food. Many of the birds take on a drab coloration during this season. As February begins to end, so does the dull coloration as many of these birds don their brightest plumage as they prepare for the mating season.
There are over 40 species of ducks in North America, many of which can be found throughout the East. The mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) is considered the most common species and can be found in swamps, ponds, lakes, and other bodies of water. The wood duck (Aix sponsa) is a much more skittish species that dwells in similar habitats as the mallard and can be recognized by its trademark crescent-shaped head. The wood duck’s Eurasian relative, the mandarin duck (Aix galericulata), is an extremely rare find here in the states. This year there was a male found in a flock of mallards. While it could be a lost specimen, scientists believe it is more likely an escapee from a farm or a zoo.
Many different waterbirds can be found floating on the shores of New England. One of the most sought after is the long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis). This large bird is very common in the Arctic regions, coming down south during the winter during which they will gather in large flocks off the coast to feed. These ducks feed on mollusks, crustaceans and small fish but will occasionally feed on vegetation.
Another duck often seen during the New England winter is the red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator). This species feeds primarily on fish and can be identified by the male’s rusty breast. The female has an orangish head with a gray body and, like most of the other duck species, differs in appearance from the male. The hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is a relative of the red-breasted mergansers and is readily identified by observing the male’s large black and white hood. Like some other species, the hooded merganser is a cavity nester and will lay its eggs in tree holes and nesting boxes that are near water.
Easton has an abundant habitat that harbors all of the species mentioned in this article. Keep an eye out for these amazing creatures on your next winter walk near wetland habitats. For those who don’t know where to start, Easton and the region surrounding it contain a wide variety of trails and natural areas. Explore some of the trails to find wildlife through the Aspetuck Land Trust, or explore trails throughout Connecticut at CT Woodlands.