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Winter Waterfowl: Not Always at your Peck and Call

If you are in Ocean City this week, you may notice a couple of changes as you drive down Coastal Highway. The speed limit, normally 40 mph through North Ocean City, has been reduced to 30 mph, and Downtown, the speed limit has also been reduced. This is due to the expected, unauthorized H2Oi Pop-Up Rally.  It is reasonable to expect heavier than usual traffic, noise and strict enforcement of vehicle laws during the week and weekend.

During these cold, wet, winter months, it can be hard to find life in the Coastal Bays. However, there are many interesting creatures who call our watershed home during these chilly times, such as migrating waterfowl! You may be asking yourself, what exactly is a waterfowl? Well, it is simply a bird that frequents water, such as a duck, goose, or swan. Below, you can read about a few of these migrating birds found in the Coastal Bays during the winter months.

Bufflehead

In the winter, the preferred habitat of this small sea duck are estuaries, making the Coastal

Bufflehead – Photo by National Audubon Society

Bays the perfect wintering ground for these energetic waterfowl! If you are trying to spot a Bufflehead, be on the lookout for small groups or pairs; they are almost never seen in large flocks. And always be looking over the water, Buffleheads are rarely seen on dry land. Buffleheads are North America’s smallest diving duck. They make diving look easy by compressing their plumage to squeeze the air out, taking a slight leap forward and plunging downward, holding their wings tight against their bodies and using only their feet to propel them. They can complete an entire dive in approximately twelve seconds, all in the search of finding delicious aquatic invertebrates such as dragonfly larvae, crustaceans, and various mollusks (their main source of nutrition in winter) to munch on. During the winter months, Buffleheads are found mainly near the coast, using coves, estuaries, and marshes as shelter, being sure to avoid open coastlines.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose – Photo by National Audubon Society

These beautiful, white-bodied birds with black wingtips and pink bills, begin their migration journey from the northern most parts of Canada and travel all the way down to spend their winters through the US’s Midwest and Atlantic Coast. If you are on the lookout for some Snow Geese, be sure to keep your ears open because they release a cacophony of nasal honks when in flight or on the ground. The massive flocks that form during the nonbreeding season resemble a snowy blanket as the geese munch on plant material across open fields or wetlands. When examining this snowy blanket, you might see a dark bodied bird with a white head. This is a color variant of the Snow Goose called a Blue Goose. White and blue morphs of the Snow Goose will flock together, but the white will always outnumber the blue. When wintering and migrating flocks are feeding, there are always “lookouts” present to alert the rest of the flock when a predator, such as a Bald Eagle, is near. In recent years, Snow Geese populations have grown, and they are now among the most abundant waterfowl in the United States.

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan – Photo by National Audubon Society

The largest of the waterfowl mentioned in this article, this long-necked, entirely white bird has just a splash of yellow color at the base of the black bill. They visit our watershed during the winter months, feeding on grain found in harvested agricultural fields. Like the Snow Goose, Tundra Swans form large flocks, and, while in these large flocks, they breed as solitary pairs. And yes, they do mate for life! In fact, they are known to pair up for an entire year before breeding. These strong swimmers sleep afloat and when they do feed in the water, they dip their long necks underwater to pluck aquatic plants and roots. These vocal creatures have a noisy, high-pitched whopping call and, when in flight, the rhythmic flapping of the Tundra Swan’s wings produces a beautiful whistle that can be heard even when the bird is flying 100 feet overhead!

Bufflehead – Photo by the Chesapeake Bay Program

Fast Facts:

  1. The name “Bufflehead” comes from “buffalo-head” – based on the male’s odd puffy head shape.
  2. The oldest Snow Goose on record was 27 and a half years old.
  3. In aggressive or defensive situations, adult Tundra Swans make a very distinct hissing sound.

Each of these important waterfowl bring life to the Coastal Bays each winter. It is important to protect and conserve our watershed so that these birds will continue to have safe wintering habitat. To view how climate change is predicted to impact migration patterns of these species, please visit Audubon, search for the bird of your choice, and select “Climate Vulnerability” to see how the species range will change under increased global temperatures.

About the MCBP Contributor:

Chandler Joiner is an Environmental Educator with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. She is responsible for developing and leading a variety of environmental education programs, including newly added virtual programming for students and community members. Chandler is also responsible for the creation and implementation of MCBP’s Living Local program. Click here to check out the Living Local farm spotlights, and if you are interested in learning more about MCBP’s educational programming, please email cjoiner@mdcoastalbays.org for more information.

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