The Chesapeake is known for its importance to waterfowl. About one-third of all waterfowl that winter on the Atlantic Coast do it right here.
But the suburban landscape where I live and work provides a limited view of wintering waterfowl. Sure, I pass fields filled with Canada geese and see mallards near the developed shorelines, but that's about all.
It is easy to forget that the Chesapeake Bay watershed lures a great variety of birds from Alaska, Canada, the north central United States and New England. Swans, geese and ducks seek out the rivers, creeks and wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay for food critical to their survival.
Swans are the largest of waterfowl and the tundra swan travels the farthest — more than 4,000 miles — to winter primarily on the Eastern Shore. These large white birds are easily recognized by their black bills and straight necks. Tundra swans often flock together on shallow ponds.
Another swan, the mute swan, is an invasive, nonnative bird from Europe. The mute swan competes with other waterfowl for food and habitat. Orange bills and S-shaped necks distinguish the invading mute swan from our native tundra swan.
Constant honking signals the arrival of the familiar Canada goose with its black and white head, brown back and pale breast. A favorite quarry of hunters and bird watchers, Canada geese feed in wetlands and farm fields. But keep an eye out for a lesser known visitor, the snow goose, easily distinguished by its white body, black wingtips and pink feet and bills.
The greatest variety of waterfowl are the ducks. Ducks are often characterized by their feeding methods: dabbling or diving.
Dabbling ducks feed by straining food from the water's surface or by submerging their heads while their tails remain out of the water. Males are usually brightly colored while females are drab. Plants make up most dabblers' diets. Dabblers take flight by leaping from the surface of the water and can be found on rivers and close to shorelines.
The most common of the dabblers is the mallard duck. The male has a dark green head while the female is dusky brown. Another dabbler is the American black duck. Both male and female American black ducks look similar to mallard hens, only darker. These two species often interbreed. Other dabblers include the American wigeon, green-winged teal, northern pintail (the male has long black tail feathers), and northern shoveler (named for its large spatula-like bill).
Diving ducks have legs located toward the rear of the body. This makes walking on land difficult. Diving ducks swim underwater, pursuing fish or searching the bottom for roots and seeds of Bay grasses and small animals. They must run along the surface of the water to take flight. Diving ducks can be further separated into bay, sea and river ducks.
Bay ducks feed in shallow water, foraging for both plants and animals. Males have contrasting head and body colors while the females are dark or brown. The most famous is the canvasback, with its sloping black bill, red eyes and head, and white back. Canvasbacks congregate on the water in large flocks known as rafts. Other Bay ducks include the greater and lesser scaup.
Sea ducks are commonly found in deeper, open waters of the Bay. Most sea ducks feed primarily on animals such as crabs, clams and barnacles. The long-tailed duck sports contrasting brown and white colors and long tail feathers. Sloping foreheads identify the white-winged, surf, and black scoter. The bufflehead is a small black and white duck. Like its name implies, the male of this duck has an easily identified puffy head.
The three species of river ducks are all mergansers. The mergansers prey on fish caught in fresh and brackish water. Mergansers are identified by long thin serrated bills and crested heads. The red-breasted, hooded and common merganser all overwinter in the Chesapeake Bay area.
Nearby National Wildlife Refuges provide some of the best opportunities to see a greater variety of wintering waterfowl, so check out one of these refuges this season:
- Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge: Smyrna, DE. 302-653-6872
- Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge: Milton, DE. 302-684-8419
- Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: Cambridge, MD. 410-228-2677
- Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge: Rock Hall, MD. 410-639-7056
- Patuxent Research Refuge: Laurel, MD. 301-497-5580
- John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge: Philadelphia, PA. 215-365-3118
- Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge: Virginia Beach, VA. 757-301-7329
- Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge: Chincoteague, VA. 757-336-6122
- Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge: Cape Charles, VA. 757-331-2760
- Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge: Suffolk, VA. 757-986-3705
- Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge: Lorton, VA. 703-490-4979
- Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge: Woodbridge, VA. 703-490-4979
- Presquile /James River National Wildlife Refuge: Prince George, VA. 804-829-9020
- Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge: Prince George, VA. 804-333-1470