Winter wigeon watching is one of the things I love about living here in BC’s Gulf Islands. When the days get short, my partner and I enjoy wandering to the water’s edge. In the darkness of an early December morning, the shoreline is usually quite still. We hear the squeaky call of the American wigeons long before we see the birds; it’s the cutest sound.
They huddle in a spot where a seasonal creek brings fresh rainwater into the bay. It’s a prime gathering place where gulls and ducks alike spend the early morning bathing. It never really occurred to me that fresh water offers a better bathing experience, even for ocean-going birds, but that seems to be the case here. Bath time done, the ducks head out onto the bay, squeaking all the while.
With the wigeons are often buffleheads, goldeneyes, mallards, and the odd scoter. If we’re lucky, a loon in its modest winter attire lurks in the background. Among all the birds, we can usually count on a harbour seal bobbing along, watching us as we walk.
It’s a pleasant way to start the day.
Tools of the Wigeon Trade
Look at the beautiful beak on that male wigeon. It’s not just cute; it’s a highly specialized tool. American wigeons are really into vegetation; more than many other ducks (though they will switch to a more animal diet in breeding season.)
See how that bill is kind of stubby? It’s a lot like a goose’s bill in shape, and that’s because, like geese, wigeons are grazers. They are more likely than other ducks to head upland, and where I used to live in Vancouver we’d see more of them on the green lawns of parks than we would in the water. Golf courses are heaven to these guys (and I really, really hope golf courses are using fewer pesticides than they used to.)
They also have another way of getting at the tasty green stuff: American wigeons often hang out in deep water with their cool cousins, the diving ducks. Wigeons are dabblers; they can’t get too far under water. So they wait until the divers go way, way down into the deep and bring up some long string of pondweed, and then the wigeons pounce. One of the names way back in the early 20th century was “poacher,” believe it or not, for their habit of stealing food.
In coastal British Columbia, we don’t see wigeons at all in the summer months. They’re way up north; our birds are likely nesting in Alaska (American wigeons are one of the most northerly nesting ducks.) Their arrival here on the coast means winter is here… and sometimes they bring a friend or two with them in the form of an Eurasian wigeon.
Once you start looking for the Eurasians, they’re not hard to spot, with that beautiful copper head. Some winters we see about one Eurasian for every 100 Americans; other years it seems there’s none to be found. Almost all of the records here are for males, but I don’t think anybody knows if the males are actually more likely to wander down here from Siberia, or if it’s just that nobody notices the females. They’re awfully hard to tell apart from female American wigeons.
By the end of winter, there’s a lot of American wigeon courtship going on, and the lucky ducks will have found a mate before they head north to the breeding territory. By ‘lucky’ I mean fit; wigeons, like other ducks, are selective and the healthiest, biggest females tend to choose the biggest males. By the time courtship season is winding down, paired ducks are likely to be considerably bigger than courting ducks… and the singletons are the smallest ones of all. Nature is kind of cruel that way, but I guess it makes for fat fluffy babies.
I have always thought of the dabbling ducks as being short-term couples, as opposed to geese who mate for life. But wigeons stay together from late winter right through to nesting time. While she occupies a nest away from the water under a snowberry bush or something similar, he stays on the territory guarding against interlopers.
Once she’s got the wee ones mobile and out on the water, his work is done for the year. He bands with other post-breeding males, and non-breeding females, to head north to find some big lake to hang out and moult into a new set of plumage. Breeding females stay behind to moult and take care of the young. Multi-tasking, like mothers everywhere.
I hope you’re able to do some pleasant and productive birding in these cool winter months. A bit of nature makes even the darkest days brighter.
Let me brighten your Friday.
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