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!

Author: Steve

Steve Gosser is a nature and birding enthusiast from Western Pennsylvania who loves to capture the sights he encounters with his camera. Visit his gallery site at

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