Migrating waterfowl are an early sign of spring

Migrating waterfowl are an early sign of spring

“Now is that sweet unwritten moment when all things are possible, are just begun. The little tree is not quite leafed. The mate not yet chosen. For the rambler in the woods all that he can find in heavy books will be less worth what he learns sitting on a log and listening to the first quiver of sound from the marshes…” From An Almanac for Moderns by Donald Culross Peattie, entry for March 1.

The Vernal Equinox is still a few weeks away, but already I am seeing signs of spring everywhere. Three weeks ago, I heard for the first time this year the territorial call of the tufted titmice visiting my property and bird feeder. Their two-syllabled call of “peter peter peter peter” is unmistakable, and easy to mimic to the confusion of the little bird. Its song is a reminder that the days are getting longer, finally!

I’ll have to wait until spring has finally arrived to hear the returning songbirds, and I’ll note the first melody of my favorites, the fluted tune of the wood and hermit thrush and the distinctive song of the yellow warbler. Until then, I am enjoying sightings of my favorite waterfowl, some year-round residents and some winter visitors gathering in groups on their way to northern breeding grounds.

Wood Duck

Our region is the northern tip of the wood ducks’ winter range. This month I’ll be looking for this beautiful duck species as they gather in local ponds and rivers in courtship rituals to find a mate in preparation for the spring nest building and breeding season. The males are a remarkable iridescent chestnut and green, with ornate feather patterns, while the females are grayish with pale spotted flanks and distinctive white patterns around the eye. They are North America’s only perching ducks with developed claws allowing them to grip bark and perch on branches. They are cavity nesting birds and reuse nesting holes excavated by pileated woodpeckers, or nest boxes provided by humans.

Several years ago, my friend, Dick Waterman of Sprague, built a wood duck box for me. He knew about my interest in wood ducks, and he maintains a few boxes in a large pond adjacent to his house. The pond was created by beavers some years ago and is a convenient stopover for migrating ducks and geese. I attached my box to a dead tree in the middle of a small beaver pond near my family home in New Hampshire. Despite early success, the last few years the box has not been used by wood ducks. The beaver pond is slowly returning to forest, and likely the ducks are finding better nesting opportunities closer to more open water. Last month I relocated the box on the shore of a larger stream and marsh area where we have seen ducks and geese. I am hopeful for success this spring.


I used to live close to Witches Woods Lake in Woodstock Valley. From February through March, I would see large flocks of buffleheads stopping over on their migration north to breeding grounds in the boreal forest and aspen parklands of central Canada. They are our smallest diving duck. When I first saw them on the lake it was comical to see a flock of 40 or more abruptly vanish from the surface of the pond, diving for small fish and suddenly reappearing in unison several yards away. They are white and black and have large heads compared to their diminutive size with the males sporting bright white plumage on their heads. Females are a subdued gray brown with a neat white patch on their cheeks. Buffleheads make their nests in old nesting holes, particularly those made by northern flickers and pileated woodpeckers.

Common Loon

“We awoke, about three o’clock this morning, to the calling of loons – not their wild, echoing laughter but a long, muted, musical note. Looking out over the misty lake, we saw a red moon hanging low above the silhouetted hills and, amid trailing films of mist, a red moon and red ripple glints reflected on the surface of the water. Silently, we gazed at this strange and beautiful apparition glowing in the sky and in the lake. And, all the while, the loons sounded faraway, lonely horns in the night.” From Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist’s Year by Edwin Way Teale, entry for Aug. 17.

This January I spotted a solitary loon foraging for fish in the Thames River, just off Norwich Harbor. They are large birds, up to 32 inches long with 46-inch wingspans. The male and female plumage are identical with black head and bill, red eyes, and extensive white and black checkering on the back. They are powerful and agile divers and adept at catching small fish with fast underwater chases. They can’t really walk well on land and typically only come ashore to nest. They prefer hidden locations on a lake shore close to a bank. Wildlife biologists also provide artificial nesting platforms for loons to use, especially on lakes with an overly developed shoreline and powerboat usage that creates large wakes that can flood nests.

During winter their freshwater breeding grounds to the north are frozen, and they move to the open water of coastal areas. They return to the same northern lakes each year and arrive soon after “ice out” has occurred. I don’t know of any loons currently nesting in The Last Green Valley, and the Sibley Guide to Birds shows parts of Massachusetts and all of Connecticut outside their nesting region. They do nest at Quabbin Reservoir in northern Worcester County, close to the New Hampshire border.

The eerie calls of common loons heard echoing across clear northern lakes always stirs the heart. Their nocturnal calls have been likened to everything from moans of the dead to insane laughter, giving audible credence to the old saying that someone is “crazy as a loon.” The various calls or “language” of loons is understood to have different meanings. The laugh or “tremolo-call” is likely made when the bird is alarmed, and the long wail is probably a location call between a mated pair, with the yodel-call thought to be a territorial announcement.

Spring will be here soon, and the warmer days will be accompanied by bird song, blooming flowers, green fields, hills and valleys. The Last Green Valley’s annual Spring Outdoors program kicks off with a Vernal Equinox Hike March 19 and continues until the Summer Solstice June 20. Information can be found at https://thelastgreenvalley.org/explore/spring-outdoors/. Contact TLGV at 860-774-3300 to receive a printed Spring Outdoors guides.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. Year round we share our region with fascinating water birds, such as the beautiful wood duck, and during winter the diminutive bufflehead and extraordinary loon — the one with the distinctive crazy laugh. I hope you’ll join me and together let us enjoy it, care for it, and pass it on.

Information for this column was gleaned from the Sibley Guide to Birds by David Sibley, the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume III by Donald and Lillian Stokes, and the Cornell Lab for Ornithology, All About Birds website.


Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org or 860-774-3300.




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