Schoolhouse Pond is an unlikely birding hot spot.
First is the name: It’s not near a schoolhouse. Second is the location: It sits directly across the street from the front door of the Prince George’s County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, MD.
Scores of workers and visitors stream into and out of the building, which houses the offices of the county executive, county council, board of education and a number of other government offices. The county is home to 900,000 people, and it looked like most of them were here this morning.
The car ahead of us eased into a parking spot and we pulled in just behind it. Two men emerged, clad in business suits and carrying satchels bulging with papers. They walked briskly across the street and waded into crowd entering the administration building.
We got out of our car wearing jeans and heavy jackets with binoculars looped around our necks. We carried field notebooks and guides. We also turned in the opposite direction, toward the pond, with a far different business on our minds.
The trees surrounding the pond were alive with chickadees, titmice, sparrows and noisy red-winged blackbirds. Out on the pond was a diverse array of waterfowl.
We immediately focused on a nearby small flock of diminutive ducks. The females were the usual assortment of browns, blacks and grays. The males, though, were a colorful lot. They had rich chestnut heads and necks. A large dark green ear patch extended from the eye to the back of the head. A gray body set off the mottled brown chest. A white vertical stripe went from the shoulder to the belly.
The green-winged teal (Anas crecca) is the smallest dabbling duck in North America. In fact, among all waterfowl, only the bufflehead and some of the grebes are smaller. The teal is only a foot long from the short, black bill to its compact tail. The birds weigh just 12 ounces.
Sitting on the pond, the green-winged teal males showed colorful round heads atop short and compact bodies.
The origin of the bird’s name becomes apparent when it is on the wing. When resting, the wings appear to be gray. As each wing unfolds for flight, it shows a large green panel called a speculum, topped by a white or buffy bar. Teals have very fast, deep wing beats, always looking somewhat frantic in flight. They fly in compact flocks that spin and swirl like well-rehearsed Olympic skaters.
Green-winged teal frequent shallow, marshy or muddy ponds, especially those with abundant emergent vegetation. The ducks eat seeds, which they scoop off the surface of the water or pluck up from shallow mud flats.
The male green-winged teals were in breeding plumage although actual mating and nesting wouldn’t occur for another few weeks from now and thousands of miles to the north.
As March unfolds, most of the green-winged teal of the Chesapeake head north. Some will summer in the Prairie Pothole region of the U.S. north-central states. Most will continue into Canada where they will be found in every province and the extreme northern forests just short of the Arctic tundra.
Green-winged teal are circumpolar. Teal from the great boreal forests of Eurasia sometimes stray to Alaska and western Canada. These green-winged teal are the same species as their North American counterpart. Interestingly, the Eurasian birds have a horizontal white bar on their bodies rather than the vertical one we see in North American birds.
Year-round populations of green-winged teal live in Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington and along a narrow band on the Canadian Pacific Coast to Alaska. The birds spend their winters in an area that stretches from California across the country to New Jersey, the Chesapeake Basin and south into Mexico.
The green-winged teal flock that we had been watching grew restless and burst off the pond in near unison. They made a rapid flight to the far end of the pond before circling back.
In a flash, they wheeled sharply away from us and were quickly lost behind the tree line on the opposite shore.
After an hour or so of birding, we made our way back to the car.
We happened upon another pair of suits, heading to their cars after concluding their business in the administration building. Our trip had been carried out in different garb with very different objectives, but I believed that we were equally successful. The juxtaposition brought a smile to my face.
Most of us try to strike a balance between work tasks and recreational activities. For much of my life I took the well-traveled path to work, putting off chances to nourish my soul. Today, though, like characters in a Robert Frost poem, we took the path less traveled and it had made all the difference.