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The Waterfowl Itch

tundra swans at twilight by Mark Lehigh

Tundra swans (photo: Mark Lehigh, CC licence)

When I hear and see flocks of tundra swans flying northwest in early March, I get what I call the “waterfowl itch.” I want to leave our still brown, gray, and mostly empty mountaintop forest and visit as many lakes as possible to feast my winter-weary eyes on brightly-colored migrating waterfowl. And although, over the years, my husband Bruce and I have visited such places throughout the commonwealth, Yellow Creek State Park remains one of our favorite locales to waterfowl watch.

Of course, if we lived closer to Pymatuning in the northwest or Middle Creek in the southeast, they would be our first choices. But both require long drives and an overnight at our ages. However, Yellow Creek State Park is a little over an hour away and has an excellent Waterfowl Observatory as well as several viewing areas and coves along its southern shore.

Last March, which was much colder than usual, we waited and waited for the lakes to thaw and the waterfowl to head north. Finally, on the last day of the month, it was clear and a cool 34 degrees, so we packed a lunch and armed with our binoculars and scope, we drove to the park.

Fifteen tundra swans sat on the ice sheet along the shore of the lake when we pulled into the park, and even though they were relatively close to us, they remained still as we peered at their white bodies and black bills through our scope. Farther out in the open water we spotted rafts of diving ducks—hooded mergansers, buffleheads, greater scaups, and ring-necked ducks.

Hooded merganser by Rick Leche

Hooded merganser (Rick Leche, CC licence)

The handsome male hooded merganser with his signature fan-shaped white patch on his black puffy head is an uncommon but breeding species in Pennsylvania. Its numbers have been slowly increasing though, according to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. Kevin Jacobs, who wrote the hooded merganser account, credits the large number of wood duck boxes, especially on state game lands, which hooded mergansers can use for nesting in addition to large trees. He also mentions the importance of suitable wetland habitats being provided for common mergansers courtesy of the increasing number of beavers. In fact, the confirmed number of breeding hooded mergansers in the first Atlas (1983-89) of 42 increased to 127 by the second Atlas (2004-09). But buffleheads, greater scaup, and ring-necked ducks, while seen occasionally during the summer in Pennsylvania, breed farther north and west of the state.

The smaller male bufflehead also has a puffy head with a large white patch, but his body is mostly white in contrast to the black, white, and rusty brown body of the male hooded merganser. The greater scaup male is a study in gray and white with a dark green head, while the ring-necked duck should be called ring-billed because of the white ring near the tip of his mostly gray and black bill. The female ring-necked duck is dark brown in contrast to the male’s mostly black and gray body with a vertical white mark in front of his wing, but she also has a white ring on her bill.

When we drove into the picnic area, few people were about, but a couple hundred dark gray American coots bobbed their heads as they swam in the cove. A member of the Rail family, they rarely nest in Pennsylvania and confirmed breeding coots have decreased from 11 to two in the second Atlas, probably because the state lacks large freshwater marshes with floating aquatic vegetation interspersed with large, open areas of water that breeding coots need.

Greater yellowlegs by Tim Harding

Greater yellowlegs (Tim Harding, CC licence)

At Yellow Creek State Park the wetland rang with red-winged blackbird song and a greater yellowlegs hunted along the shore, deftly catching little fish washed up on the land with its slightly upcurving bill that is longer than its head. This shorebird nests in northern Canada, and I remembered that the last time I had been close to one was a July in Newfoundland where it no doubt was nesting. As it walked on its long, elegant legs it often teetered.

When we took the usual quarter mile walk through the woods to the Waterfowl Observatory, we were surprised by a sign guiding us to a new (to us) Wetland Walkway. There we saw our fifth duck species, a pair of mallards—by far the most common waterfowl in the state and greatly prized by hunters. Altogether, mallards account for more than half Pennsylvania’s annual duck harvest and averages from 60,000 to over 90,000 a year.

As we expected, the Waterfowl Observatory yielded views of rafts of ducks but on that day only off the left side in Grandpap’s Cove. Also as we expected, when I slid open the viewing slats, a cold wind off the lake tore through the observatory, numbing our hands as we held our binoculars or adjusted the scope.

First we identified five canvasbacks, the males’ bright white backs and longer red necks distinguishing them from gray-backed redheads, which we saw later from the beach area. Both are also diving ducks and usually prefer deeper water, but canvasbacks sometimes graze in flooded fields during migration. The area we were looking at from the observatory included a long, grassy, shrubby island in relatively low water.

Female and male northern shoveler by Matthew Paulson

Female and male northern shoveler (Matthew Paulson, CC licence)

The more we looked, the more we saw water birds poking their heads up from behind the grasses and shrubs. We counted five great blue herons standing in a row and dozens of Canada geese calling constantly which were joined by a single tundra swan. Then, at last, we had an excellent view of four male northern shovelers and one female, both sexes sporting their distinctive long, spoon-shaped bills, the female a drab brown, the males with reddish-brown bellies and sides, white breasts, and dark green heads.

Northern shovelers, canvasbacks, and redheads do not breed in Pennsylvania, although the second Atlas reports that a couple records do exist from earlier times for northern shovelers and canvasbacks. Canvasbacks and redheads declined precipitously in the twentieth century because prairie wetlands where they breed were drained. In addition their breeding grounds had droughts and too many ducks were harvested in hunting season, but lately their numbers have rebounded due to conservation efforts on those breeding grounds.

Blue-winged teal by Len Blumin

Blue-winged teal (Len Blumin, CC licence)

When we left the observatory, we returned to the picnic grounds for a late lunch and enjoyed watching the small wetland area along the shore. Three blue-winged teals poked in a puddle and ignored us as we moved close to observe them. The male’s white facial crescent easily identifies him, but both sexes display the large, chalky-blue patch on their forewings that gives them their name. Even though the blue-winged teal is abundant in North America, it has declined as a breeding species in Pennsylvania from 29 confirmed in the first Atlas to 11 in the second. Loss of temporary wetlands in healthy grasslands—their preferred breeding habitat—has been dwindling in Pennsylvania. Other bird species, i.e. northern harriers and spotted sandpipers that breed in the same habitat, are also declining. Still, we always see a pair of blue-winged teals when we visit Yellow Creek State Park.

Near the wetland area swam a raft of common mergansers—males with white bodies, black backs, and dark green heads and the equally striking gray-bodied females, with white breasts and chins and red-crested heads. Common mergansers nest in Pennsylvania especially along forested rivers and their confirmed numbers increased from 119 in the first Atlas to 241 in the second, due to “clean, biologically productive rivers and streams,” Jacobs writes, as well as “forest maturation in Pennsylvania and the resulting increase in large trees…” where they nest.

Altogether, we had long and close looks at 10 duck species as well as the greater yellowlegs, American coots, a belted kingfisher, Canada geese, tundra swans, killdeer, herring gulls, and the great blue herons. As usual, at Yellow Creek State Park I had had a productive day that amply soothed my “waterfowl itch.”


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