Last week my wife and I watched seven species of ducks and numerous Canada geese at Swan Pond, a historic district in Berkeley County.

A sign beside Route 45 says: “1.5 miles north is Swan Pond Manor, a 2,000-acre retreat set aside in 1745 for use of Thomas Lord Fairfax, once the proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia who established an estate at Greenway Court, Frederick County in 1738. So named because wild swans inhabited [the] site.”

Probably the first land to be surveyed here, Swan Pond has weathered many changes since 1745. Swan Pond’s location in “The Northern Neck of Virginia” is now West Virginia. Lord Fairfax’s seat, Greenway Court, is still in Virginia, but is now in Clarke County because Frederick County was divided. Instead of several ponds, only one remains.

Despite subdivisions and property transfers, much of this land remains agricultural and has historic buildings. It retains some of the richest soils in the county, some of which contain deposits of marl—a rich loam derived from limestone. And the stream that drains the pond still eventually disappears underground into “Swan Pond Sink Hole.”  

And instead of swans, there are wild ducks and geese.

Forage and Plunder

The afternoon of February 8, Swan Pond hosted a roiling mass of hungry waterfowl. Ice-free water and rising temperatures that day made it a feeding hot spot. When I set up the scope beside the road, it offered an opportunity to compare the ways ducks and geese obtain their food.

Canada geese are sturdy walkers that prefer to graze on land. But when choice food is available in the water, they swim boldly and buoyantly with characteristic watchful confidence. This day, they swam shoulder to shoulder, dipping long, black necks into the water. In deeper water they tipped up their white bottoms in order to reach submerged water plants.  

Among the geese swam smaller diving ducks: ring necked, redhead, and canvasback. These ducks cruised low in the water, their tails barely clearing the surface. Diving smoothly, breaking the surface headfirst with barely a ripple, they swam down to pluck vegetation and other pond life from the bottom.

Baldpates, gadwalls, mallards, and black ducks patrolled the shallows. Known as puddle or dabbling ducks, they floated lightly on the surface and dredged the vegetation, often tipping up like the geese to reach the bottom. Their bills, lined with “lamellae,” or strainers, sifted any edible bits from muddy water.

Baldpates have shorter bills than other puddle ducks. They characteristically spin and dab at floating food. As we watched, these uncommon ducks demonstrated an alternative feeding technique: piracy. When a redhead, canvasback, or ring-necked diver bobbed to the surface with a mouthful of freshwater greens, a baldpate swam boldly over and plucked the food from the diver’s mouth! Lacking diving skills, the baldpate plundered its food.

We saw no namesake wild swan that day, but spotted eleven of them on the Shenandoah the previous week, just a few miles downriver from Harpers Ferry.

— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He also submitted the artwork for this piece, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

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