The Northern Shoveler

This is a male Northern Shoveler. I’ve been having great luck finding lots of these this past month as they have been migrating through, going onward to their breeding grounds of Canada and Western United States. They tend to be more common on the western side of the continent so some years they can be a challenge to find in my home state of Pennsylvania. If you read my previous post on my waterfowl bonanza day, you saw that I found lots of them up in Crawford County and in very good numbers, which usually from my experience doesn’t happen often. My luck finding more continued yesterday when I visited a local park nearby, Northmoreland, and found this nice male. When I first spotted him he was all by himself out in the middle of the lake. I got some distant shots of him out there and usually with highly skittish species such as the Shoveler, that’s about all you can hope for.

However this Shoveler seemed a little more tolerant to people than most. I watched as many people walking the park passed by him and he would only swim away causally, not franticly fly away like they usually do. So then I decided to spend some time and see if it was possible to get a little closer to this very handsome duck. With a little patience and slow moving I got the closest I’ve ever been to this species!

If you are familiar with other ducks you may notice his bill looks a little different than the rest. He has a large spatulate bill that is shaped very similar to a shovel, hence how they got their name. You can see the shape better if you see it from the top, such as in this picture when he was preening.

You can really see the difference when compared to a Mallard’s bill.

So if you’re like me, you may be wondering why is his bill shaped differently? Well like so many species, they are adapted to fit a special niche in nature. Here is a paragraph I took from Wikipedia that explains it all:

Northern shovelers feed by dabbling for plant food, often by swinging its bill from side to side and using the bill to strain food from the water. They use their highly specialized bill (from which their name is derived) to forage for aquatic invertebrates – a carnivorous diet. Their wide-flat bill is equipped with well-developed lamellae – small, comb-like structures on the edge of the bill that act like sieves, allowing the birds to skim crustaceans and plankton from the water’s surface. This adaptation, more specialized in shovelers, gives them an advantage over other puddle ducks, with which they do not have to compete for food resources during most of the year. Thus, mud-bottomed marshes rich in invertebrate life are their habitat of choices”.

Aren’t these ducks amazing!

I tried to get even closer to this bird that seemed very tolerant of me. However I approached a bit too quickly and startled him at one point and he took off. Luckily he didn’t go very far….only about 50 yards down the lake. Once he took flight however, it afforded me the opportunity to get a close flight shot.

I was about to go home at that point but I looked over and he was actually swimming back over to where he flew from. I then hunkered down low to the ground and tried to conceal myself behind a park bench. To my amazement he came right back over and swam so close to me I almost couldn’t fit him in the frame! And to add to that, he swam into a beautiful spot where the perfectly still water gave him a magnificent mirror reflection.

At that point, I had to say this was the coolest Shoveler I had ever encountered. If only all birds would cooperate this well for picture taking. I had to take just a few more photos before I called it a day and headed for home. What a beautiful, unique and stunning bird to be able to see at such close range!

A Waterfowl Bonanza!

There is a different kind of March madness that happens this time of year. No I’m not talking about college hoops but the massive waterfowl migration! Here in Pennsylvania ducks, geese and swans begin to move through the area heading north to their breeding grounds and the peak time is right around the middle of March. So the avid birder that I am, I always find time this time of year to hit some lakes and wetlands to see what I can find. One of the best areas in Western PA is in and around Crawford County. The places I really like looking around at are Geneva Marsh, Conneaut Marsh, Conneaut Lake and Pymatuning. So yesterday I decided to go and see what I could find. I got up at the crack of dawn and headed northward. By 9am I was at my first location at Geneva Marsh. This is an incredible birding place and sits right on I-79, a little south of Meadville. If you’ve ever traveled this stretch of I-79 you no doubt have seen this place because it is huge! The very southern tip of the marsh is known as Custards and what makes this spot really nice is that the road cuts right across it, so if you’re lucky the birds can be right out your car window. And yes I had some luck with these Ring-necked Ducks that were just 15 yards or so from the road. My first ducks for the day!

Just a little further down the road and I came across another fine looking pair….Mr. and Mrs. Wood Duck!

Like so many species of waterfowl, Wood Ducks are highly skittish and it doesn’t take much for them to spook. Within a minute they had about enough of me taking pictures from my car window and decided to leave.

Looking out across the marsh were hundred upon hundred of various ducks, geese and swans. Those white blobs in the back is a huge flock of Tundra Swans!!

And here is a more focused shot of the huge flock with I-79 in the background.

I looked back at the bridge where I had crossed and saw some American Wigeons swimming in close. I put the car in reverse and pull up slowly to them. They stayed for a little bit and here I caught them as they lifted off.

Then I spotted a Pied-billed Grebe swimming in close to the road. I waited for him to submerge and I got out of the car and quickly headed to the guard rail and waiting for him to come up. He eventually popped up but looked like he was trying to imitate the Lock Ness Monster…haha!

The morning was moving along so I decided at that point to go further north and hit some more spots. Next was to McMichael Road which is on the edge of Conneaut Marsh, just above Geneva Marsh. I found lots more waterfowl there including Mallards, Green-winged Teal, Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks, Northern Pintails and American Wigeons. However the only things close enough for decent pictures was this beautiful pair of Northern Shovelers! Notice their very uniquely shaped bill.

It turned out to be one of my best days for finding lots of Shovelers! At my next stop at the Pymatuning fish hatchery I found a huge flock of them huddled on the ice resting.

Just then I looked up in the sky and spotted yet another flock of Tundra Swans. I hoped that they might land nearby where I could get some shots of them coming down, however they continued on, eventually going out of sight.

At this point it was nearing the noon hour so I headed over to the Pymatuning causeway which goes across the Ohio border. I was getting hungry so I pulled into the parking area there and took out my sandwich for a bite to eat. All the Ring-billed Gulls in the area must know when people stop there, there’s a good chance they have food and before I knew it my car was surrounded by dozen of gulls. This afforded me the opportunity for a close up portrait. And yes I shared a little of my sandwich.

And then there they were….my best duck of the day! Two Long-tailed Ducks swimming out from the causeway parking lot. I sat there waiting, hoping and praying that they would come closer. But NO!! They were not in the least interested in being cooperative birds for photos, so all I got was this very distant shot. But hey, it’s an awesome bird to at least see.

I then swung over to the Millers Pond area but unfortunately with the bitter cold, 90% of the ponds there were iced over with not much in the way of birds. I did see a Rough Legged Hawk there flying off and did catch these two Sandhill Cranes as they flew over.

It was now nearing the 1 o’clock hour and I still had lots of hours of daylight left so as a spur of the moment decision, I headed to Conneaut Ohio along Lake Erie to see what else I could find. After the 30 minute drive I got to the Conneaut Harbor and the first bird I see is a Common Goldeneye swimming right next to the deck of the harbor. I waited for him to submerge and then quickly got out of the car and hoped for a nice shot as he surfaced. He popped up but as soon as he did, the little bugger spotted me hunkered down on the ground and just like that he was off.

I then continued around the Harbor and then spotted something I was not expecting. The rarest bird of the day! A juvenile Glaucous Gull!! What a treat and he was sitting with a group of Ring-billed Gulls not more than 20 yards from the harbor!

The marina area was loaded with more ducks, the most abundant being hundreds upon hundreds of Red-breasted Mergansers. This one looked like he was walking on water.

I then stopped back at some of the places I had been earlier in the day. The ducks were still abundant everywhere I went. Back at Conneaut Marsh the ducks were flying around in hysteria and then I saw the reason why when eventually a Bald Eagle flew over. This is a Gadwall with Pintails in the back.

More Northern Pintails.

And here’s what spooked them all…

My last image of the day came from the same spot where I got my first picture of the day, back at Geneva Marsh at Custards. Here another Bald Eagle looks over a lake full of waterfowl.