A River View: Waterfowl on the St. Croix

One of the nice things about living near a river like the St. Croix is that we are treated to a nearly unending procession of returning migrators each spring. Right now on the river the variety of wildlife, particularly waterfowl, is incredible.

Besides the omnipresent mallards and Canada geese, we still have dozens of trumpeter swans hanging around–they’re here all winter.

Trumpeter swans squabble on the St. Croix River

But in the past week or so, the number of waterfowl species has increased dramatically. A high-flying flock of white-fronted geese, (we usually call them specklebellies, or just specks) even passed by yesterday.

White-fronted geese up high.

Most noticeable of all is the increase in diving ducks. Since the majority of the divers; birds like greater and lesser scaup, ring-necks, redheads, and canvasbacks, nest much further north, their appearance here is purely transitory. As soon as the ice leaves lakes further north, the birds will follow.

The hopscotching of waterways continues for birds like the lesser scaup (AKA bluebills) all the way to the arctic circle. We see them only fleetingly each spring, and to a lesser extent, in the fall. Frankly, their numbers have mysteriously plummeted in the past decade or so, and biologists haven’t quite figured out why.

Nevertheless, they’re here now.

Mixed Flock of diving ducks--lesser and greater scaup, redheads, and ring-necked ducks.

There’s a reason diving ducks are called diving ducks. Unlike the ubiquitous mallards, which feed by tipping forward with their butts in the air, divers might dive 30 or 40 feet deep searching for food. Much of their diet is aquatic vegetation, but they don’t pass up small crustaceans or fish either.

Divers normally don’t hang around with tip-up ducks like mallards, but they have no problem intermingling with other divers, on the water or in flight.

Bluebills and Redheads in flight.
Bluebills, broadbills, ring-necks, Goldeneyes, and Redheads in flight.
Bluebills, Ringnecks, and redheads land on the St. Croix River in Western Wisconsin.

If you are a duck hunter, a sight like the one below quickens the pulse; if it doesn’t, it’s time to quit hunting.

Bluebills rocking their wings to lose altitude in a hurry.

The reason springtime is my favorite time to photograph waterfowl, or any birds for that matter, is that they are all decked out in their breeding plumage. In the fall, many birds are just coming out of their molting period, and they may not look near as handsome as they do in the spring.

Woodduck drake in spring breeding plumage.
Three ringneck drakes and one bluebill.

This unusual March weather, with highs predicted in the 60s all week long, certainly will open a good deal more water further north. I’ll follow them as far as I can in coming weeks, but for now I’ll stay close to home and keep searching for that perfect photo op.

Next stop, Crex Meadows.

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