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NATURE HAPPENINGS - March 2008

Duck, Duck, Goose!

by Damian Fagan

I sit on a small bluff overlooking the Colorado River. From my vantage point I can see up and downstream, as well as the cottonwood grove that lines a small island in mid-stream. The island divides the river in half and creates a slower backwater on its east side.

I’m pretty comfortable on this March morning with my thermos of coffee, a “soft” chair for back support, a spotting scope set up, and my dog Jessie snoring behind me.

She can’t be too tired from the hike in, but I am always amazed at how she just drops off into dreamland. Her legs twitch between snores; she must be closing in on that elusive jackrabbit.

We are here to watch one of two bald eagle nests along the Colorado River, but between sessions of inactivity – one bird is incubating and the other is perched nearby, I scan the river for waterfowl and the island for turkeys.

There are gaggles of geese and rafts of ducks scattered along the river. About sixty Canada geese, with their distinctive white chin straps, are either lined up along the river or floating in the island’s backwater. Since, the river hasn’t really begun to rise yet this season, there are plenty of shallows and slow moving sections where the geese gather.

Those birds on the bank spend a great deal of time preening, neck-thrusting at intruders or shaking their wings at neighbors. Courtship is underway, even though the birds are still on migration. Some may nest here while others are heading north.
Mixed in with the geese are small groups of green-winged teal, mallards, ring-necks, widgeons, and northern shovelers. The shovelers are the Pinocchios of the waterfowl world; their large spatula-shaped bills are designed to plow through the water, straining food from the murky bottom. Unlike other dabblers in the group, shovelers rarely dive or upend themselves.

The widgeons sound like squeaky toys with their high-pitched calls. These birds have a white forehead stripe that has earned them the nickname “baldpate.” Similar to the bald eagle, these birds aren’t featherless on the head; the name is from an Old English word meaning “white-headed.”

I skim through the group of dabblers and locate several common goldeneyes and a pair of common mergansers. The goldeneyes are named for their eye color, but hunters sometimes refer to these birds as “whistlers” for the sound of their wingbeats. I watch as the goldeneyes dive after aquatic prey – crayfish, insects, fishes – then bob to the surface like corks. Water beads up on their forest-green heads.

The mergansers search for fish, their preferred prey. Even at a distance I can see their thin orangish bills. It is amazing that these birds catch small fish by sight in this muddy river. Perhaps that is why these birds are here now, for when the snowmelt begins and the river becomes more turbid a merganser’s ability to see fish must be greatly reduced.

Even the great blue herons that are stalking prey in the shallows have limited visibility. But their stealth and patience pays off as fish rise towards the surface. With the speed of a speargun, the heron snatches its prey and swallows it whole.

While watching the waterfowl, I see one eagle leave its perch and fly low over the river. I imagine the bird saying “duck, duck, goose!” as a mass of waterfowl take flight. Some ducks dive for cover, but the rest – ducks and geese - end up in a swirling mass. Throughout the chaos, the eagle doesn’t give chase.

Eventually the eagle flies farther upstream and the waterfowl settle down. For these birds it’s just another day on the river, a day of survival. For me, it is a wonderful way to spend a March day.

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