The winter months can seem like a slow time to bird in land-locked Pennsylvania. In general, the bright warblers have completely deserted the region along with the other colorful species such as Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
One group of birds that make winter birding more fun is the ducks. Most species of ducks breed in lakes and ponds scattered across the tundra. As winter approaches, the open water across their breeding range freezes and forces the ducks to migrate southward.
The best places to look for ducks are deep reservoirs and lakes that will keep their open water even when it drops below freezing. Species such as Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, Ring-necked Ducks and Northern Shovelers can form big flocks at these open lakes and attract other, less common species as well.
Since ducks are generally out on open water, it is often possible to observe them for longer periods of times than the typical songbird. This gives me a chance to practice my photography. I generally rely on digiscoping, which is basically lining up my point and shoot camera behind my spotting scope to get a closer shot of distant birds.
There are two main groups of ducks that we get in good numbers in Pennsylvania, dabbling ducks and divers. Dabbling ducks, like the Blue-winged Teal below, are often found in shallower water, as well as smaller ponds and rivers. They feed primarily along the surface of the water or by tipping headfirst into the water, looking for aquatic plants.
Diving ducks, like the Ring-necked Ducks below, feed by diving beneath the surface of the water in search of food and can spend long periods of time feeding along the lake bottom. This can make them harder to observe as they continually disappear from view. The diving ducks are usually found in much deeper water than dabblers. An interesting thing about the diving ducks is that their legs are closer to the rear of the body, making walking on land difficult.
When you are out birding your local lake, you are likely to see other birds as well. American Coots are often feeding in medium to large flocks and if you are lucky, you will get to see them wandering around on land, looking positively goofy. Keep an eye out for their big lobed feet that enable them to swim so well.
For more birding tips and photography, be sure to check out my blog, Nemesis Bird.