It's gone. Finally, the ice that covered our ponds has melted. Without this frozen ceiling, small fish, insect larvae, crayfish, snails, and seeds become a buffet for some of the handsomest creatures on the planet—migratory ducks. These large, strikingly-marked birds are relatively easy to see in early spring if you know where to look. And they are worth looking at—they're all dressed up. Snappily-attired males hope to win the favor of a female and to help her create the next generation of their species. But you can't wait for warm summer mornings to see them—you must brave the chill of early spring, because soon they'll be far away, or dispersed invisibly into breeding territories.
Buffleheads, Ring-necked Ducks, and Common Goldeneyes are just passing through on their way to breeding grounds farther north. They have spent the winter in southern states and along the coast. Buffleheads and goldeneyes are diving ducks. They plunge below the surface to capture fish, propelled by feet placed well-astern. The drakes are garbed in waterproof tuxedos. Upon departing our region, they'll nest in northern forests—in tree cavities such as old woodpecker holes, or in nest boxes provided for the purpose. Buffleheads are so small that they might use openings carved by that colorful, noisy, medium-sized woodpecker, the Northern Flicker.
Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks are forest-loving ducks. Some of them nest and reproduce in Massachusetts. However, they tend to be so secretive that they are seldom seen during the nesting season. These species also dwell in tree cavities, sometimes inhabiting holes made by Pileated Woodpeckers.
The masculine beauty of many species of ducks comes from striking patterns in a muted palette—black, white, and gray. The gentleman Wood Duck goes to the opposite extreme; he thrills brownish Wood Duck hens with a gaudy, multicolored outfit. Wood Ducks partake of a broad menu of vegetable and animal food, preferring to forage in shallow water. Mergansers dive for fish and other aquatic animals. Often there's a mile of dry land between water and the nest holes in which their eggs are laid and incubated. Baby ducks hatch ready to hike. Sometimes mishaps end their initial treks; only about half of ducklings survive to fly.
Most of our towns have ponds or rivers that attract a good variety of ducks. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge as habitat for waterfowl. Here, marshy ponds beside the Concord River are surrounded by walkable dikes where people from many towns go to view birds. The parking lot is off Bedford Road in Concord. From the dikes, you often have clear lines of sight to numerous kinds of ducks—but they usually stay out of shotgun range, so it’s advisable to take along binoculars, or a low-power telescope and tripod, to get a look.
Springtime, with its marvelous revelations, has returned. Why not give your eyes a treat? These intriguing seasonal visitors await those who make the effort to seek them out.
Ron McAdow is Executive Director of Sudbury Valley Trustees