Bird’s-eye view: Head to the water and watch for the fowl | Merrimack Valley


Tweetings, fellow birders! Thanks for flying in to read again today.

On Tuesday it’s officially summer, so I’m sure many of you will be heading to your favorite local watering hole (and no, I’m not talking about a bar). New England is loaded with beautiful rivers, lakes, ponds and streams, which are of course great places to spend a hot afternoon. And, odds are, you will spot a few feathered swimmers.

I’d first like to introduce you to a pair of ducks: the mallard and the wood duck, both visitors which you’ll most likely see out on the water. The male version of the mallard is a large dabbling duck with blue-green head and white collar, silver-brown back, yellow bill and orange webbed feet. The female mallard has soft brown plumage with a spotted back, and you’ll often see a breeding pair swimming together.

The wood duck is an impressive medium-sized perching duck, the male sporting a magnificent range of feathers during mating season. This includes a green-colored head ending in a point below the neck, a brown spotted chest, a blue-black back and tan sides, white tips at the wings, a short bill, red eyes, a white underbelly and yellow feet (phew !). The female is lovely with a brown head and back, white underbelly, brown eyes, a short bill, yellow feet, and a wild streak of blue-green near the wings.

Both the mallard and wood duck migrate along the East Coast, and are omnivorous, eating mostly seeds and vegetation, but also insects.

The wood duck’s call is an elevated whistle, while the Mallard gives the more traditional “quack,” sometimes being a rather noisy character.

But beyond ducks, another common waterfowl you might see is the Canada goose. You’ll often see them flying in v-formation overhead, but they also love a good dip now and then.

They possess a short black bill and head, and a long black neck with a flush of white beneath the chin and along the cheeks. They have a gray-brown body, short tail, wide-spanning wings and black webbed feet.

They are large migratory birds with a well-known “honking” call and can be found in almost any area with fresh water. They are a particularly striking and beautiful flyer. They have always been among my very favorites when it comes to geese.

However, if we’re talking beauty, how can one forget about the mute swan? This incredible bird is the essence of elegance. A heavy flying bird not native to New England, it can instantly be recognized by its snow-white plumage and long neck which forms the distinctive “S” shape while at rest (and of course, two swans curved together make the signature heart shape) .

This swan has short legs and gray webbed feet, a short orange bill with black outlining around the eyes, all crowned with a black knob above the bill. A less vocal waterfowl — hence the name “mute” — it does give off grunts and whistles, and a breeding duo will utter a rhythmic song during courtship, so please, give them a little privacy.

The common loon must be discussed. This spectacular diving bird has the most radiant and dizzying of plumage. It is marked with a jet-black head, short sharp bill, red eyes, and black-and-white crisscrossing patterns on the back and wings. This bird has powerful legs, a white belly, a black band around the lower neck with white parallel lines just above, forming a sort of necklace or chain.

A beloved species in the state of Maine, the common loon has increased its numbers here in New England recently. And if you do come across it, you’ll know right away by its wavering call — a yodel or mournful wail known as the tremolo. The call is made only by the male and even resembles a wolf’s howl, almost laughing — which can sound frightening. But fear not, for the loon feeds only on fish and other aquatic critters, and should give you no trouble. Bring a camera, in fact, for you’ll want a picture of this classic and unforgettable bird.

In closing here’s a bit of advice: If you want a great activity this summer, I strongly urge you to visit a nearby freshwater habitat. It’s fun for the kids and doesn’t cost a fortune, plus you’ll see some great wildlife. Pack a picnic lunch, grab your sunglasses and head on out for the day. Mother Nature will never, ever disappoint you, for she is an endless source of pure wonder and utter amazement.

What’s that? You’d rather end with a bad joke? Well…

Q: Where do waterfowl go if they want to watch ballet?

A: Swan Lake.

Happy birding!

Born and raised in Methuen, Vincent Spada is the author of three books, as well as a plethora of poems and short stories. Reach him with questions or ideas for his column at vinspada@yahoo.com.

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