Spring was slow in its arrival, but many new birds from the south are already here and most of our winter residents that breed off island, are gone – except for a few stragglers such as the Black Scoters, White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, and the Common Loon. Our year round Backshore residents, the Common Eiders, are finding partners and nesting in bushes along the shoreline – hopefully safe from predators.
For detailed sightings of Peaks Island birds during April and through mid-May, please go to Michael’s 2017 Bird List.
On April 12 Rhonda spotted and reported on PI Neighbor a very noteworthy pair of dabbling ducks – Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata).
At first sight male shovelers may be confused with the Mallards with their iridescent green/blue head. On closer inspection a very long and flat bill is – shaped like a spatula. The male (drake) has a black bill and the female ‘s is yellowish orange. And his yellow irises are noteworthy. The sides of the male are a striking chestnut brown, with a white chest. The male mallard has a brown chest and whitish-grey side. If the shoveler spreads out his wings you will see beautiful green wing feathers (secondaries) above which are baby blue feathers (coverts).
The female shoveler is similar to the female Mallard, sporting scalloped brownish grey and white feathers (similar to the female Mallard) – great for camouflage when on her nest. Her secondary wing feathers are similar to the males, but not as vivid of a green.
Both sexes display bright orange feet. What advantage are orange legs and feet?
Photo © Sam Wainright
This shoveler pair lingered on Peaks Island near Brackett Avenue and Battery Steel ponds for a month. They became the ‘talk’ of the island: “What pond did you see the shovelers today? Have they left, will they stay? At first I thought they were Mallards (Ann). Did you see the size of that beak on that little duck?” Lisa is hopeful that they may stay on the island to breed, but our last sighting was May 11. Shovelers are generally late spring migrants (1).
Northern Shovelers are seasonally monogamous, usually choosing a mate during the winter months and during migration stopovers display courtship behavior. This pair of shovelers were rarely apart from each other, and when separated the male gave a low and ‘concerned’ chugh chugh call (1), although our interpretation was a humph humph call. We did not see their courtship display, as they were more intent on feeding. If anyone did see the male’s display, it would be a treat. Here is how it goes: The male calls fast with repeated calls as he ‘turns-the-back-of-the-head, laterally-dabbles, head-dips, up-ends, wing-flaps, and jump-flights’. After the jump-flight he takes-off toward the female, calls, and rattles his wings. To top it off he ‘pumps-his-head’. (1)
Their flat spatula beak with densely packed lamellae is ideal for straining (dabbling) small invertebrates, including insect larvae. This pair dabbled along the pond shores for a month to store energy for their final journey to their breeding grounds.
The most concentrated breeding area for the Northern Shoveler is west of the Mississippi, and north through Canada and to Alaska. Although breeding Northern Shovelers are rare east of the Mississippi, a small breeding range runs along the Great Lakes in Ontario and into Quebec and New Brunswick – bordering the US. Did this pair choose this closer breeding range or will they venture even further to find their preferred wetlands to nest? Even more rare breeding sites have been documented in New York and Pennsylvania. (1)
Lisa may get her wish and they will stay here to breed. A possible but rare event.
1. Baldassarre, G. 2014. Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America. Vol.1. Johns Hopkins University Press. Pg. 496-513.
Contributors: Michael LaCombe, Rhonda Berg, Lisa Lynch, and all who shared their stories and enjoyed these dabbling shovelers.
Reviewed by: Michelle Brown, Michael LaCombe, Sam Wainright, and Marty
Story and Photos: Patty Wainright