Local ecologist, writer and broadcaster Dave Eastman returns to the Alliance website after a long absence. We welcome him and his “Country Ecology” columns back in time for the New Year!
Center Sandwich–December 27, 2016–ASNH birdwatchers are noting more and more ruddy ducks each fall. Most of these are on Lake Massabesic near Manchester, but there is a goodly number on Great Bay, too. 173 were tallied on Beaver Lake in Derry in the fall of 2015. That was fifth highest in N.H., and seven of the ten highest counts have come in the past six years. This is a prairie pothole duck and an odd duck in itself, in terms of breeding plumage and behavior. Auduboners are wondering why these uncommon migrants are increasing each late autumn.
Ruddy ducks are in a sub-family or tribe all by themselves. Their taxonomy is curiously different than any other duck in North America. They are called “stiff-tailed” ducks because of their uniquely rigid and long, stiff tail they often hold cocked upward. Ruddy ducks are small, compact, with a big head and a large, stout, scoop-shaped bill which gives them a matchless shape among all other ducks in the USA. Their breeding plumage is remarkably brilliant in season, including a colorful sky-blue bill. There is a bright white cheek patch under a dark top-knot; this is visible at a considerable distance. They have slightly peaked blackish heads and fairly short, thick necks.
If the ruddy duck were school bus yellow, its posture in water would remind you of a rubber bathtub toy. With its stiff fan shaped tail held high and proud, and with its neck back and thick beak this tiny duck looks like no other. Ruddy ducks generally only reach 14 to 16 inches long and they weigh little more than a pound.
In summer, they have rich chestnut bodies contrasting with those bright blue bills. In winter, they are dull gray-brown above and paler below with dull gray bills. Females and first-year males are brownish, somewhat like winter males but with a blurry stripe across the pale cheek patch. In flight, ruddy ducks show solidly dark tops of their wings.
Their breeding habitat is marshy lakes and ponds. They nest in dense vegetation near water. The female builds this out of grass, locating it well to hide from predators. A typical brood contains 5 to 15 ducklings.
These birds live to dive and swim underwater, and will do so at the slightest disturbance. Ruddy ducks and can swim down to 10 feet. They mainly eat seeds and roots of aquatic plants, aquatic insects and crustaceans. Ruddy ducks dive to feed on pondweeds, algae and wild celery, as well as those of sedges, smartweeds and grasses. They also eat aquatic larvae, shellfish and crustaceans during the breeding season.
Their courtship antics are downright bizarre, and may be viewed in biologists’ videos if you Google up websites from Cornell and others. Pairs form after arrival on breeding waters in the “Prairie Pothole” region of the Midwest and southern Canada. To attract a mate, males go through an extravagant courtship ritual that includes swimming around a female, slapping his chest with his bill, and bouncing his head very rapidly, while making several calls, and running across the water’s surface. These courtship displays of the male include raising the tail over his back, making short rushes across water which occur with much splashing of wings and feet. Noise is desired! To show his control of an area the drake will inflate his neck, raise two tufts of hair on his head that look like horns. The rest of the time he is completely silent.
Along with ripples radiating outwards from this behavior, one biologist filming in Yellowstone speculated the small duck knows what he is doing to create these iridescent concentric rings in his pattern making.
The nest site exists in dense marsh vegetation over shallow water. Built by the female, it is a woven platform of grasses, cattails, lined with down, a few inches above water and anchored to standing marsh growth. Sometimes it’s built on top of an old muskrat house or coot nest. She alone incubates the eggs for approximately 23 days, and within two days hatching, the ducklings can leave the nest and swim on their own. It will take them another six weeks before they are strong enough to take their first flight. In the meantime, they are taught what to eat as well as diving to the murky bottom.
Like most waterfowl they are strong fliers and make the long migration from their northern range in Alaska and Canada to their over-wintering grounds along the U.S. Gulf coasts south to mid Mexico. Ruddy ducks are somewhat unique in that they often make their long migrations at night. Even though they are strong enough to make these, with their short, pointed wings they are very poor at taking off from the water surface, and usually will dive or swim away from predators.
Dave Eastman also broadcasts “Country Ecology” four times weekly over WMWV 93.5 fm. As Vice President of the Lakes Region Chapter/ASNH, he welcomes you to monthly programs at the Loon Center in Moultonborough. He is available at: firstname.lastname@example.org (or) www.countryecology.com for consultation. This article was also published by the Conway Daily Sun.