Northern Pintails are elegant dabbling ducks seen in Sequim in winter. Photo by Judith White

Northern Pintails are elegant dabbling ducks seen in Sequim in winter. Photo by Judith White

Bird Tales: The dabbling duck’s tale

  • Wednesday, October 14, 2020 1:30am
  • Life

Passing by ponds in Sequim this week, have you noticed more duck tails? Dabbling ducks tip down head first with their tails pointing up in the air to eat off the bottom in shallow water. Most graze on vegetation and seeds, but some also consume marine invertebrates.

Some good places to see dabbling ducks are fresh water ponds like Carrie Blake Park in Sequim, although many also gather in the Dungeness River estuary off Three Crabs and Dungeness Landing County Park.

As a group, they are highly migratory. The ducks come to our area in winter from their preferred summer breeding grounds. Depending on the species, these include the Circumpolar North, Alaska, Canada, the northern Great Plains and the Intermountain West.

Mallards are the typical dabbling duck, moving their flat broad bills on the surface of the water to strain out food, but also tipping down with their tails up to reach shallow vegetation under water. Some mallards are year-round residents in our area, but in winter larger numbers arrive.

Gadwalls are another mid-size dabbling duck that can be found in our area year-round. Like most ducks, these year-round residents molt after breeding to a dull brown plumage called “eclipse.” Females retain their brown coloration throughout the year, thought to provide camouflage while they incubate and raise the young. Males molt into brighter, more distinctive plumage, making them easier to identify.

Another dabbling duck common in Sequim in winter is the sociable Northern Pintail. Long pointed tails help distinguish these slender, elegant ducks. They often form large flocks in winter on open, shallow wetlands, bays, estuaries and flooded agricultural fields where they consume grains, marsh plant seeds, and aquatic invertebrates.

Although abundant in North America, their winter habitats are threatened by water shortages, agricultural development, contamination, and urbanization.

Stamp funds

The Federal Duck Stamp program has used more than $1 billion from purchased duck stamps (98 percent of revenue) to acquire more than 6 million acres of wetland habitat since the program’s inception in the early 1900s. These wetland habitats benefit waterfowl like Northern Pintails, wetland-dependent wildlife and wildlife enthusiasts as well as hunters.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages hunting of dabbling ducks based on population size. Many people who do not hunt like to collect the distinctive stamps or contribute to the Federal Duck Stamp program.

The Northern Shoveler is another distinctive dabbling duck with a large, flat bill that it uses to strain small swimming crustaceans from the water. Northern Shovelers also sometimes work together in groups, following each other in a turning circle that creates a tornado-like water current that lifts food items off the bottom.

American Wigeon are perky, sociable ducks who form large flocks and can be identified by the “squeaky toy” sound of their vocalizations. American Wigeon is almost always the high count on the Sequim-Dungeness Christmas Bird Count (SDCBC), averaging about 10,000 wigeons per year for the past 44 years.

American Wigeons are joined every winter in Sequim and Dungeness by Eurasian wigeons, which likely migrate here from eastern Siberia. The SDCBC sometimes leads all Christmas Bird Counts in North America with its count of Eurasian Wigeons.

Green-winged Teal are our smallest dabbling duck, breeding across northern North America along river deltas and forest wetland, and moving to warmer southern locations in winter.

Some winter in the Puget Sound region, including Sequim, and it is a treat to see the males molt into their bright plumage prior to summer migration to the north or east to nest.

Next time you are out and about in Sequim this month, look for those duck tails!

Judith White is president of the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society.

A green-winged teal in resplendent breeding colors. Photo by Judith White

A green-winged teal in resplendent breeding colors. Photo by Judith White

Northern Shovelers use their large flat bills to filter water as they search for small marine invertebrates. Photo by Judith White

Northern Shovelers use their large flat bills to filter water as they search for small marine invertebrates. Photo by Judith White

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