Beaks and Bills
Divers and Dabblers
by Joe Meche
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and is still active in chapter affairs.He has been watching birds for more than 50 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 30 years. He has written more than 100 articles for Whatcom Watch.
This time of year has always been my favorite for birding, despite the capricious nature of the weather here in the northwest corner. A typical field trip between the first part of November and mid-April usually involves preparation for any number of weather possibilities. With this in mind, the typical attire for a day in the field is never going to be the shorts and sneakers that we favor in late spring and throughout the summer months. Instead, we don the Pacific Northwest basics that usually contain ample amounts of wool along with waterproof layers. Such is life in this place we call home.
All things considered, this is the time of year when we are blessed with glorious multitudes of waterfowl, on both fresh and salt water. I grew up in a small town in southwest Louisiana, literally surrounded by thousands of acres of rice fields. These same fields, along with meandering bayous, river bottom swamps, and marshes were magnets to incomprehensible numbers of wintering birds, especially waterfowl. It’s no coincidence that I grew quite fond of ducks. A recent documentary on the PBS series, Nature, brought this all back into focus for me.
The documentary, aptly dubbed a Duckumentary, was a reminder of the close ties I have with ducks. Ducks, in turn, remind me of the special fondness that I had for my paternal grandfather as I was growing up. His nickname was Duck and he, more than anyone else in my family, taught me how to be aware of the natural order of things around us. He explained why all the birds spent the winters with us and why they left in the spring. I lived in a gigantic aviary with a guide to lead the way, and there were always ducks!
Ducks belong to the larger family of birds that includes geese and swans, which are noticeably larger and lack the speed and agility of their smaller counterparts. The larger waterfowl are similar to the large jets that require longer runways, while the majority of ducks do quite well with short takeoffs and landings. Ducks are totally at home in watery environments and evolutionary adaptations are always on display. Whether they’re on the wing or on the water, ducks have a lot to offer for their devoted watchers.
While they might seem as plain and simple as any of our birds can be, don’t underestimate the intricate characteristics that make these birds so special. Their striking breeding plumages and complex courting behavior are the norm for male ducks while the females tend to be a bit on the drab side. Considering that they will be the ones to sit on eggs and accompany the newly hatched offspring on their first outings, camouflage is a necessity for the females. Nature provides.
Within the family of ducks that frequents both salt and fresh water habitats, there are birds that have evolved into two specific groups, the divers and the dabblers. Simply put when it comes to feeding, some ducks feed below the surface while others find nourishment within easier reach on the surface itself. While the dabblers can lay claim to what many consider one of the most beautiful of all birds – the wood duck – the divers are the action-oriented members of the family.
The basic physiology of the two types of ducks is a marvel in and of itself. They all have webbed feet but the feet of the dabblers are set closer to the midline of their bodies, allowing them to walk on dry land in search of food. Conversely, the divers are almost clumsy on land since their feet are positioned more to the rear, aiding in their ability to swim underwater in pursuit of aquatic prey or underwater plants. But, as in every facet of life, there are tradeoffs.
Along with the positioning of the feet for propulsion underwater, the divers have smaller wings and need a running start to take flight. The dabblers, on the other hand, are able to lift themselves straight into flight from the water or dry land, making themselves less vulnerable to predators. They are also capable of feeding in more diverse places than the divers, so there’s a definite balance when it comes to the benefits of adaptive evolution.
The moderate maritime climate of northwestern Washington makes it an ideal location for large numbers of both divers and dabblers in winter. As long as freshwater lakes and ponds remain free of ice, most of our dabblers will remain throughout the winter. In the case of prolonged freezing spells, some birds might be forced to move to the ice-free fringes of saltwater embayments or head farther south.
If you plan to spend a day in the field and would like to incorporate a search for all the divers and dabblers the county has to offer, here’s a simple yet effective plan to follow. Plan your day with all the layers of warm/dry clothing you can imagine, since it’s easier to remove a layer than to spend time thinking about the one or two you left behind. Plan to take binoculars and a good scope. Some of your intended target birds might be farther offshore or in the middle of a lake and a scope will provide you with more success.
Begin your day by driving north on the Interstate and taking the last Blaine exit before the border crossing. Cross the tracks into the Blaine waterfront area and utilize every vantage point that offers good views of the open water of Semiahmoo Bay. Along the shallow fringes of the bay, you can often see thousands of dabblers like American wigeons, green-winged teal, and northern pintails. Continue to the public pier at the end of Marine Drive for great views of divers such as three species of scoters, mergansers, buffleheads, and the beautiful long-tailed ducks.
When you leave the Blaine waterfront, follow the shoreline around Drayton Harbor to Semiahmoo and you will marvel at the number of birds that are gathered on the leeward side of this natural sand spit. When you leave Semiahmoo, follow the same pattern along the water through Birch Bay to Birch Bay State Park. By the time you finish lunch at the park, you will have seen all the divers you could ever hope to see in a single outing.
To complete the diver/dabbler tour, make stops along the way home at Lake Terrell and Tennant Lake. Your day will be filled with numerous sightings of other birds as well, but the divers and dabblers are certain to be memorable. Let’s face it….ducks are fun! Humans have always seen the comical side of ducks, as evidenced by the well known portrayals of Daffy and Donald. I came by my affinity for them naturally, and with the help of my grandfather. And something to remember if you’re just getting into bird watching, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it must be a duck!