Monday, April 21, 2008

Duck Spotting

All photos courtesy of Tom Grey.

Perhaps no birds are more rewarding for the beginning birder to identify and watch than ducks. They're fairly large and the drakes are colorful, making them easier to locate in a field guide than, say, warblers or sparrows. They're perfect for learning birding skills such as identifying species by call (not all ducks quack), or in flight (a good birder or duck hunter can identify species by profile or even wing sound).

With more than 40 species of ducks, geese and swans in North America, finding all the different species can keep any birder occupied.

Large migrating flocks of waterfowl are one of the most impressive natural spectacles in North America. I once watched a flock of flying snow geese that took 45 minutes to pass overhead--literally tens of thousands of birds.

April is the perfect time to check out migrating ducks, geese and swans in Idaho. You might be rewarded with the sight of thousands of diving ducks on the Snake River, an unusual species on Lake Lowell, or a flock of swans landing on the Henry's Fork.

Here are a few places where you can see interesting species around the state:

Thousand Springs - The Thousand Springs area near Hagerman is one of the birding hotspots of Idaho, and you can nearly always count on interesting waterfowl sightings. Large flocks of scaup (above) and other diving ducks can be spotted on the Snake River, while the wetlands and springs host wigeons, gadwalls and green-wing teal. Other water birds, including Western grebes and pelicans--are also quite common. Check out Idaho' newest state parks--Ritter Island and Box Canyon--for some of the best viewing.

Silver Creek - The Nature Conservancy's Silver Creek Preserve is one of the best places to photograph and observe cinammon teal (above). Many other species are also present, including difficult-to-spot species like canvasback and ring-necked duck. The wetland areas, ponds and moist fields of the nearby Camas Prairie also offer rewarding duck spotting.

Kootenai River Valley - Wetlands once covered this North Idaho valley; today only 5% remain. Fortunately, a number of conservation projects have restored beautiful wetland areas--drawing large flocks of ducks, geese and swans in the spring and fall. Visit The Nature Conservancy's Ball Creek Ranch Preserve, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, and Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Boundary Creek Wildlife Management Area. A great variety of birds can be found. Just across the border in British Columbia is another wonderful waterfowl watching spot--the Creston Wetlands.

Boise River Greenbelt - A surprising number of ducks and geese can be found right in downtown Boise. Of course, mallards and Canada geese are everywhere, but mixed in with those flocks are a variety of other species. Look for wood ducks and wigeons in the city parks, and hooded mergansers and goldeneyes in the Barber Pool area. You can even sometimes see much rarer birds: my sightings include a pintail, a tundra swan and even an Eurasian wigeon (above).

The Nature Conservancy has an ambitious goal to restore or enhance more than 8000 acres of wetland habitat around Idaho in the next five years, meaning more places for ducks to feed, rest and breed each year. --Matt Miller

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