Some ducks make very different sounds than the traditional Mallard quack. On a return trip to the Big Creek conservation trail in Long Point, March 2022, I was quite intrigued to hear squadrons of ducks uttering whistle-type calls as they scooted about on the water or took to the air. These were American Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), the smallest species of dabbling duck in North America, approximately pigeon-sized (Baldassarre 2014).
Apparently, it is the males that whistle while the females produce quacks (Baldassarre 2014). Green-winged Teals breed across the boreal and deciduous forests of North America, preferring wooded wetlands. Their nests are very difficult to find, concealed among tall grasses or shrubs. These ducks migrate early in the Spring to the northern breeding grounds, and it’s likely that the Teals I saw in March were using Long Point marshes as a stopping ground on their way north.
Teals use their bills (and the fine toothlike combs at the edges called lamellae) to filter tiny food items from shallow water such as seeds and invertebrates. Unsurprisingly because of their overall small size, it seems that Green-winged Teals are particularly good at feeding on very small food items, as opposed to Mallards, which are more generalist feeders (Baldassarre 2014).
Two fun stories about the word ‘Teal’ to finish off with. One is that, according to wikipedia teal is a word that originally meant “small dabbling duck” or something like that and was applied to several species of ducks before it was applied to the blue-green colour*, because of the bright “teal” markings on the wings (and heads of the males).
*I can’t find this mentioned in my books about ducks or anywhere well-sourced. I believe it to be true and fascinating but wikipedia is the main source I can find this fact on, so take that how you will.
My other anecdote about Teals I would like to share is about one of my favourite nature writers, Edwin Way Teale (it’s also the reason this post has a Dr. Seussian title). In his book, North with the Spring (Teale 1951), he tells of a time when his naturalist ways came under suspicion by the law. He and his friend had been out one winter day, watching ducks at a pond. Across the pond was a building which used to be a military plant, and I guess the fear of foreign spies caused a local to report the pair of men staring in that direction with binoculars.
As Teale himself says: “The dialogue that ensued when the first officer reached us might well have been a skit on a vaudeville stage.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking at ducks.”
“What’s your name?”
By the light in his eye I could tell he had heard about teal ducks. The light said: A wise guy, eh?
I have friends who are named Crow, Crane, Raven and Rook. Fortunately, they were not along that day.” (Teale 1951, p. 288).
Baldassarre, Guy. 2014. Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, 2 Vols. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Teale, Edwin Way. 1951. North with the Spring. Dodd, Mead, & Company.
For other posts about Long Point Observations, see:
I usually like to discuss my nature observations soon after I make them, but that’s not always possible. In light of this, I’d like to describe some photos I took way back in March of this year. The week was rainy except for one day and I was determined to get out there and take some photos of birds, so I took a drive to Long Point and visited two marshy trails and was successful.
One of my main sightings on this trek were various ducks and geese. Ducks other than Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) have the annoying habit of staying on the far side of whatever water body they are in, which means that I usually can’t take good pictures of them with my camera. On this excursion, I spied many of these groups of ducks keeping a wary distance and took many blurry photos of them. Most of these shy non-Mallards* were Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris). One pair of ducks actually allowed me to get much closer and take decent pictures of them. These were Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola). By their extravagant head design, it was a pair of males. Buffleheads are related to mergansers and similarly dive for their food, which is mostly aquatic insects and snails (Baldassarre 2014). They make their nests in tree cavities (mainly those fashioned by Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus)), and breed in the northern forests of North America wherever these woodpeckers are commonly nesting (Baldassarre 2014). The Buffleheads I spied floating across a Long Point marsh were either spending the winter here or moving back north to breeding habitats.
*for the record, I have nothing against Mallard Ducks and I usually end up taking pictures of them too (they are quite beautiful birds) but there is definitely a part of me that wants to see and encounter creatures that are new to me and Mallards are… well, they’re the most commonly encountered ducks in the world. I could use a very similar paragraph to explain my feelings toward Canada Geese (Branta canadensis).
Hanging out with the Buffleheads was another waterbird which I initially mistook for a female Bufflehead because of its close proximity to the males and lack of head adornment. A few minutes later the pair of males took off from the water and flew down the waterway in a flurry of black-and-white. Yet this other bird didn’t follow, instead making occasional dives beneath the water surface and popping back up again. When reviewing my photos it became clear that this bird wasn’t a Bufflehead, and it wasn’t even a Duck (member of the family Anatidae). My mystery bird was from an entirely different branch of the bird family tree, despite its superficially duck-like appearance. It was a Grebe (a member of the Family Podicepididae), specifically a Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus).
Grebes swim in the water by means of their feet which like ducks are expanded to have more surface area but unlike a duck’s ‘webbed’ feet, grebe feet are said to be ‘lobed’. I have never seen a grebe foot before, because their feet are usually under the water while these superb swimmers float or dive. But take a look at this photo of a Horned Grebe and you will see why I mention the feet as they are very impressive.
The Horned Grebe I saw at Long Point was in its much less dramatic winter plumage (cross-reference the beautifully patterned adult in Tomas Wuschke’s photo above with the drab gray/black bird in my photo). They only very rarely breed in Ontario, and even then only at the very northern edge of the province, preferring northern Canada and Alaska where they create nests on floating vegetation in wetlands (Hughes 2001).
Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) were ubiquitous on both trails, frequently startling me with sudden splashes before scooting along at the surface or under the water. I observed a couple of these large rodents munching and was curious what they were eating but I was unable to tell from my photos. It could have been anything from vegetation to arthropods to fish since Muskrats are extreme generalists.
Two shockingly large birds flew in from the lake across the marsh, majestic and powerful eagles. Because of their large wingspan, I initially thought the birds to be Herons, which move south to avoid frozen water but will return once the ice has melted. Once I took some pictures I saw that the heads were definitely the heads of raptors, and I later figured out that they were juvenile Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).
While driving between the two trails I noticed a frog and did a double take. To notice a frog while driving says something about the frog’s size and indeed this was a representative of the largest frog species in North America: an American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus). This frog’s tympanum (the circular depression below and behind the eye) is much larger than its eye and its throat is yellow which indicates that this is a male, and males are generally smaller than females in this species! Bullfrogs can reach 20.3 cm (8 inches) long and will “eat nearly any animal they can capture and swallow” (Harding and Mifsud 2017).
The most noticeable resident on the second trail were the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), tearing about on their long legs and piercing the air with their high-pitched repeating calls. I love these birds and their distinctive cries, and seeing this many together at one time was a treat.
Before leaving each trail, I was able to photograph some small sparrows that were foraging along the paths. Watching these birds picking at the ground and presumably finding something to eat made me wonder what they could possibly be finding. A glance at the ground surface revealed no insects to me, but the Killdeer too were digging into the mud and finding plenty to eat. Watching birds forage like this always makes me marvel at the amount of life that must be present to sustain them, life that I couldn’t even see! There must be hundreds of tiny invertebrates that each bird was finding to sustain themselves. What an incredible invisible foundation to these flocks.
Baldassarre, Guy. 2014. Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, 2 Vols. (revised and updated edition). Johns Hopkins University Press.
Harding, James H. and Mifsud, David A. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. University of Michigan Press.
Hughes, Janice M. 2001. The ROM Field Guide to Birds of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum.
For related nature observations in Long Point, see:
Over the past few years I have come to appreciate how beautiful and wonderful birds are. Along with that appreciation has been the realization that there are diverse birds within a short walk or drive of my home. I have encountered new species of birds almost every time I go out to my new favourite birding destination: Long Point. Globally renowned for being a biodiversity hotspot, and a corridor for migrating birds crossing the Great Lakes, Long Point is full of a variety of freshwater habitats and a corresponding diversity of bird species.
My most recent exciting encounter was with a species I had never before seen up close. Before this past year “Heron” meant the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) the only species of heron I saw regularly, certainly the most conspicuous heron species across North America. But as I was wandering down a trail amid mudflats and shallow coastal marsh, I was treated to an incredible sighting: the small agile form of a Green Heron (Butorides virescens). Stalking swiftly through the shallow water, the Green Heron snapped at the water surface with fair frequency and was always on the move while it foraged. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was eating, but it certainly wasn’t fish unless it was catching tiny individuals. My guess is that it was feeding on aquatic invertebrates such as dragonfly larvae, or other water-dwelling insects. I couldn’t believe my luck to see this beautiful little hunter foraging within a few metres of me.
Green herons breed across the eastern United States and Southeastern Canada (including Southern Ontario). The birds start arriving in Ontario at the end of April and are gone by the end of October (Davis and Kushlan 2020). Green herons spend the winter in Mexico, Central America and Northern South America. Throughout their range they utilize essentially any fresh or salt-water habitat from inland marshes to coastal mangrove forests (Davis and Kushlan 2020). With such a diversity of habitats, they feed on a wide range of prey depending on where they are hunting including fish, frogs (and tadpoles), lizards and snakes, rodents, crayfish and crabs, aquatic and flying insects, spiders, snails, earthworms and leeches (Davis and Kushlan 2020). Besides these aquatic organisms, they even feed on such surprising prey as nestling birds (Wiley 2001). Clearly Green Herons are opportunistic foragers using a variety of feeding methods to capture such diverse prey. One of the most fascinating foraging behaviours is bait-fishing. Several birds are known to do this*, but Green Herons are the heron most frequently observed using this strategy to catch prey. In one of the first reported instances of bait-fishing in the Green Heron (Lovell 1958) the bird used bread thrown by people to attract fish to the surface and even chased American Coots (Fulica americana) away from its bait.
The individual that I watched wading through the shallows was not using any bait-fishing techniques, but rather seemed to be doing the more commonly observed stalk-and-stab technique of herons the world over. After roaming across the patch of water directly across from me, it took to the air and flew a short distance to begin combing a new area of wetland for food. What a beautiful, amazing bird.
Davis Jr., W. E. and J. A. Kushlan (2020). Green Heron (Butorides virescens), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.grnher.01