LARGE PONDS AND small lakes offer some of the best winter birding habitat.
Sometimes the one lone bird you find is a surprise.
On other occasions, a small flock will catch your eye.
Always check these solitary birds and small groups of birds.
You never know who you might see.
A recent report from Beth Oakes was one of these winter surprises.
The lone bird was a Northern shoveler seen on a large private pond west of Port Angeles.
Shoveler might sound like a strange name for a bird, but this marsh duck has a long, spoon-shaped bill.
Comb-like bristles line its edges making it a great tool for sifting through the water for food.
The shoveler’s outline, due to the long bill, looks a little top-heavy toward the front.
It’s really a very attractive duck — the male duck that is.
Female shovelers are attired in drab brownish plumage that is wonderful camouflage when they are on the nest.
This plumage is much like that of the female mallard.
The male shoveler has a dark green head, a white breast and chestnut-brown sides.
A pale blue patch on its wings isn’t always visible.
When it tips up to feed beneath the water’s surface, you will see orange feet waving in the air.
Even though she might not be as colorful as her mate, the female isn’t difficult to identify.
Her long bill identifies her despite the drab coloring.
This duck is seen in larger numbers on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains during the breeding season but winter counts show more birds on the western side.
Migrants pass through the state in numbers ranging in the thousands.
The numbers for both the nesting shovelers and the wintering birds are small, in the hundreds.
It’s interesting when looking at some of the population surveys taken on these ducks throughout the decades.
Their North American population has been steadily climbing since the early 1990s.
It’s now somewhere between 3 and 4 million birds.
Small wintering populations are scattered all over Western Washington.
The figures that exist have been compiled from the annual Christmas Bird Counts taken by Audubon chapters statewide.
Those will once again be conducted later this month and into the first week in January.
The Olympic Peninsula’s shoveler population in the Sequim-Dungeness region has been recorded in the low hundreds.
There is always the question as to why certain birds show up as lone birds or in company with other migrating similar species.
There are two popular reasons given for these incidents: 1, Migration is difficult and dangerous and not everyone survives. 2, Birds can become ill but they can also run low on energy.
How well they have been fed and how strong they are comes into play.
Experience is a big factor.
First-year migrants are known to become lost more than the seasoned adults.
In desperation, they fall in with other migrating flocks whether they are related or not.
Canada geese often pick up these stragglers during migration.
Migrants moving into the northern portions of both the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas will be looking for food and shelter after crossing the water from British Columbia.
They’ve traveled from distant northern breeding grounds and they need to rest.
Most will continue southward but some will stay.
This is a great time to look for interesting stragglers.
They might be all alone or mixed in with some of the large flocks we are seeing.
Looking for a winter surprise or two is a fun activity when a break from the holiday crunch is needed.
Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected]