The year reaches its end and a cold weather front approaches. Our excitement grows as we watch and listen. No, we’re not waiting for Santa’s sleigh bells. My wife and I love to watch winter waterfowl.
Thousands of ducks, geese, swans, and loons stop on the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers every year. Fleeing south from the arctic weather, they stop here to rest and refuel. Some continue south to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coast, while many remain over winter. Few people but duck hunters and birdwatchers bear witness to our rich abundance of winter waterfowl.
Wild ducks resting on the water are typically seen from a distance. They look like faraway specks unless you have a strong pair of binoculars or, better yet, a spotting scope with a tripod or car window mount. I bought my first scope with money earned from my first art show sale in high school and never regretted the expense — it opened up a new world for me. Nowadays spotting scopes cost much more, but investing in good optics brings wonderful results. My wife and I have upgraded ours several times since then and we use a special adapter for our cell phone camera to record our sightings.
We’ve been winter waterfowl-watchers for a long time. We used to live near Lake Frederick, a man-made lake just south of Winchester, VA. One rainy November day we stopped there and found the lake white with hundreds of cooing, crooning tundra swans. They generally appear around here between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Diving ducks come through a few weeks later. Redheads, canvasbacks, scaup, and ring-necked ducks land in flocks called rafts where they rest and dive smoothly below the surface to eat water plants. Most of these ducks move on as they deplete their food supply.
As the new year begins, we check out certain sections of the river looking for the black and white floating forms of goldeneyes, boldly patterned ducks with puffy, round heads. They’re large ducks about the size of mallards. Drakes are black and white; hens are gray with brown heads. Drakes have a white spot the size of a quarter between the eye and the bill and, true to their name, both sexes have shockingly yellow eyes.
Buffleheads are among the smallest waterfowl. They’re black and white, with a puffy head that earned them their name (derived from “buffalo head”). I smile whenever we see small groups of them bobbing buoyantly on the water like rubber ducks. Viewed through a spotting scope in bright sunlight, they will take your breath away. The black and white head shines iridescent green, gold, and violet. It’s a challenge to focus our optics when these ducks suddenly disappear underwater only to pop up again at a distance a minute or so later like floating corks.
Our winter waterways host three kinds of mergansers, toothed-billed ducks that swim fast enough to catch fish underwater. One variety is the Red-breasted mergansers. Drakes have handsome, shaggy crests on their green heads, a reddish-brown breast streaked with black, and gray sides. Until a flock of 16 of them flew by my house last October, I believed they didn’t often frequent the Potomac. Evidently these ducks were following Rocky Marsh Run to the Potomac River. A merganser has a unique shape in flight for a duck. Its slim, fast-beating wings propel a cylindrical body with head and neck stretched out straight like a bowling pin.
Few things match the drama, color, and excitement of winter waterfowl watching. If you want to see for yourself, the C&O Canal towpath that runs alongside the Potomac River offers miles of vantage points.
Visit CanalTrust.org for parking maps and trip planning information.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown, West Virginia.By Doug Pifer