Editor’s Note: It was my great pleasure to be the Outdoors columnist for the Times-Dispatch for six years, from 2008-2013. I wrote two columns a week for most of that time, mostly sticking to Central Virginia, writing about the people and places that make the outdoor scene here special. I kept all my clippings from those years, and as I was going through them the other day, it occurred to me that, while some were event-based or otherwise time sensitive, many of them are still relevant today. The below is one of those, amended and updated (from Jan. 2013). Look for more in the future as part of an occasional series.
DUCKS ARRIVE FOR WINTER
If you think it’s been cold here the past few days, you’re probably not a northern pintail. Or a canvasback. Or a hooded merganser. No, if you’re one of those duck species, and you wake up to a sunny, 29-degree Richmond morning, you’re probably high-fiveing your friends: “At least it’s not 20 below!” you say.
The hooded merganser can be found on the James anywhere from Dutch Gap to Bosher’s Dam. Credit: Wikipedia
Ducks and geese come from all over North America — Alaska, Canada, New England, the northern central U.S. — to winter in the Chesapeake Bay region. Heck, tundra swans fly all the way in from the Arctic. But some find the waterways of Central Virginia so inviting, so food and habitat rich, that they never make it to the Bay.
“There’s no doubt that this time of year there’s the most diversity of ducks here,” said Gary Costanzo, a waterfowl biologist with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Most people can identify a Canada goose and a mallard. They’re practically suburbia’s mascots. But this is the best time of year to get familiar with a host of dabbling and diving ducks that, come spring, will head back north to their breeding grounds.
Aaron Bose, local birder and graphic designer, is always on the lookout for waterfowl fresh in from colder climates. “Personally, I really enjoy birding in the city,” he said. “It’s an urban area, but there’s a lot of birds to be found. It’s almost a challenge because you’re trying to find a variety in a place where you wouldn’t expect them.”
Check out the rapids below the Nickel Bridge for bufflehead action.
The James River is always a good place to start because it’s full of vegetation, invertebrates and fish that dabblers and divers need. That’s more true now, Bose said, because when it’s cold enough for smaller bodies of water to freeze — like local ponds, marshes and wetlands — “birds hit the river; they’ll want to find the open water.”
In the city, the area from Pony Pasture to the Wetlands is a good place to start. “The water is pretty calm. You can see good numbers of buffleheads,” Bose said. You can see ring-neck ducks, lesser scaup. We’ve even had a few canvasbacks recently.”
Mergansers are known as river ducks, and, Costanzo said, they’ll go to any kind of water that’s got a lot of fish in it.”
Of the three varieties — common, hooded and red-breasted — he explained, the red-breasted tend to frequent salty of brackish waters, so they’re more often found in the Bay. But hooded and common mergansers can be found anywhere from Dutch Gap in Chesterfield County on the tidal James to Bosher’s Dam just west of the Richmond/Henrico line.
“Usually, there’s one or two common mergansers in the city,” Bose said. “Usually I see them up by Pony Pasture or down off the Floodwall.”
Both Costanzo and Bose mentioned Dutch Gap as a great place for waterfowl watching. “That overlook when you go into the Henricus (Historical Park) area,” Bose said, “that’s really great for pintail, American wigeon, which you don’t necessarily see in the city too often. You get a lot of shoveler.”
Is there a more beautiful bird than the wood duck?
If all this has you saying, “That’s great, but how will I tell a hooded merganser from a ring-necked duck, or an American black duck from a wood duck?” there’s good news. There are dozens of bird and waterfowl ID books and websites available (AllAboutBirds.org is one of my favorites). And Ducks Unlimited offers a free app, which features duck ID info, including pictures, for all the major North American species.
Ok, you’ve got your ID resources, a pair of binoculars, and a few local bodies of water in mind to survey waterfowl. Getting to know ducks in the area this time of year still can be daunting.
“Take them one at a time because it is easy to get overwhelmed with a lot of birds,” Bose suggested. “Just focus on one or two and figure out what they are and forget about the rest. Next time you’re out, you already know those two and you can focus on some others.”
The effort will be worth it, because once you’ve got a few down, every winter you’ll feel like you’re greeting friends returned from the wintry north. But get out there soon. By March, the north won’t be quite as wintry, and the traveling waterfowl show will be gone.