I’ve spent the last few days watching life along the lakeshore in Alexandria, Minnesota. If you sit quietly on the end of the dock, a procession of life wanders by: white pelicans, cormorants, bald eagles, loons, various ducks, etc. But one sighting was a bit unusual.
A solitary Common Loon frequents this particular bay of Lake Le Homme Dieu and regularly serenades with his ethereal, plaintive calls morning and evening. He/she floated by preening and stretching on this early morning.
Next, a family of newly hatched Wood Ducklings floated by.
Suddenly, mother duck flew a short distance toward the shore, but then flew back directly at the loon, veering off right before hitting it. I was watching her, so I didn’t see what the loom was doing. The ducklings scattered to the shore like bullets.
But, the loon suddenly started thrashing and flapping in the water like it had caught something.
I wondered if it had caught one of the ducklings, so I googled “do loons eat baby ducks”. Guess what, they do, and there are several reports of this behavior, the most interesting of which was a loon acting like an alligator swimming low in the water and attacking from below. Click here to read about “loon alligators”. Apparently, loons will attack adult ducks and even Canada Geese, and regularly use underwater stealth in their attack.
And I thought they ate fish. Not such a nice state bird afterall.
Yesterday, when I was out photographing the Swans at Vadnais Reservoir, I discovered I had photographed a Wood Duck among the Mallards. Today I went back to get better photos of him.
Once again, the ducks and swans made a beeline to the shore near the path I was walking and congregated there for several minutes, waiting I suppose to see whether I had any treats for them. I didn’t. But that made it easier to pick out the one Wood Duck male among the hundreds of Mallards.
Mr. Wood Duck seemed a little nervous, swimming constantly to stay in the middle of a group, and huddling up close to the female Mallards wherever it could.
In fact, Woody stuck close to any Mallard female, swimming side by side and preening on shore when she did the same.
I thought Wood Ducks overwintered far south of here, and in fact they usually do. This duck either got lost, got lazy, or got lucky meeting up with a group of Mallards who hung out with swans in the only open water in this area. The Christmas Bird Count data for last year indicates that only 1 Wood Duck was seen in extreme southeastern MN, including the Twin Cities. Maybe it was this bird.
I went out to the Vadnais Reservoir to check on the swans today. I think people have been feeding them, because they (and the mallards) swim right over to you when you walk along the trail.
They swam right over to me. I didn’t notice until posting this photo that there was a male wood duck swimming along with the mallards (left side of photo). He must be confused about his identity. I will have to go back and try to find him another day.
A couple of the swans were quite insistent that I give them something and so they posed in front of me for several minutes.
Wood Ducks are congregating on the ponds in the backyard again. They were wary of me, staying a good distance away across the pond, but didn’t fly away (as they usually do).
With breeding season completed, both sexes have now replaced their flight feathers and males are replacing their mid-summer dull camouflage feathers with their striking iridescent green, purple, and blue feather patterns. (photo of eclipse (summer) plumage of males from Wikipedia)
The summer eclipse plumage of males makes them appear more similar to females, but they can still be distinguished by their red eyes, lack of tear-drop shaped white ring around the eyes (in females), and white chin strap.
At least one male on the pond had completed his full molt and floated back and forth on the pond showing off his bright green crest.
However, at least one other male in the group was still molting his head and body feathers. This photo of the trio of male, adult female, and molting male illustrates the differences in their plumage.
Males should complete this basic molt by late September and will then migrate south to their wintering range in the southeastern US. Meeting energy demands for production of new feathers at the same time as the birds try to add to their fat reserves for migration means that these ducks need to not only eat more, but eat a lot of protein. They forage for insects they find on the surface of the water, as well as vegetation along the edge of the pond. They might even grab small fish in the shallows.
Isn’t it a little late for this?
I found a mother Wood Duck and her two chicks swimming in a small creek near Medicine Lake in Plymouth a couple of days ago, and was surprised to see such young ducklings at this time of year.
Either this hen lost all of her first brood, which should have hatched six weeks ago (see Wood Duckling bonanza), and started over with a second brood, or she has been fooled by our weird summer heat into thinking she still has two months of summer left to bring off another brood. Although Wood Ducks do nest twice in the southern part of their range in the southeastern US, only one brood is usually produced by birds that breed in Minnesota.
Here’s the problem with trying to nest too late into the summer: 1) Wood Ducks incubate their eggs for 30 days; 2) then they tend their little ducklings, teaching them all the good stuff to eat, for another six to eight weeks; 3) at some point the female needs to regrow some her flight feathers so she can migrate away when the cold weather hits in September-October. So this bird is pushing the limit for completing her motherly duties and molting new feathers before the fall deadline. 4) Ducklings must gain enough body weight and complete their first entire body feather molt before migrating south. At this point, it will be October before they are completely grown and freshly feathered.
Timing is everything, and with unpredictable climate changes, making the wrong choice can be lethal.
“oh, I do hope my feathers turn out pretty”
For some time now, I’ve tried to photograph the Wood Ducks that inhabit the ponds in the back yard. There were at least two pairs of them hanging out in the shallows and presumably nesting there. They always saw me coming and flew away long before I could set up my camera, and most of the time before I ever even saw them. I wasn’t motivated enough to build a blind to hide in, so I would just try to sneak up on them (never worked).
However, last evening when I wandered (very slowly and cautiously) down to the ponds I spied a mother Wood Duck and her brood swimming around seemingly unperturbed by my presence. The ducklings were tiny; they might have been only 1-2 days old.
The ducklings fanned out around her, and she swam so that she stayed in the middle of the crowd. When I got up from my knees to get a better look, mother duck got alarmed and moved her brood off to a safer and more distant location. The little ones immediately tucked in behind her and closed ranks to form a tight group on her tail.
On the other side of the pond, I found another group of youngsters accompanied by a second female. They seemed a bit bigger and perhaps hatched a day or two earlier. The ducklings were quite widely dispersed but some subtle movement or communication from mother duck caused them to scoot very quickly across the pond, as if they were walking on the water, and lineup near her.
The duckling on the far left of this photo is “scooting”, and he moved about 50 feet in a matter of seconds. I was twice as far from this group as I was from the other one, and in the dim light of almost 8 p.m., the camera can’t capture much detail.
Once she rounded up the brood, she too moved off into the weeds to hide, so that was the end of the photo session. It looks like each female has 12-14 chicks. I wonder how many of them will survive to adulthood. There are lots of predators in and around the pond: snapping turtles, foxes, raccoons, possums, dogs, and cats would all enjoy a tasty meal of duckling.
I’m not sure whether the male helps raise/protect the brood, and I didn’t see any males on the pond last night. But I have glimpsed them previously this spring when I scared them away. Click HERE to see Paul Sundberg’s beautiful photos of Wood Ducks taken earlier this spring on his pond in northern Minnesota.
Click HERE to read an earlier post about Wood Ducks in Backyard Biology (October 12, 2011).