Diving Ducks In the Great Trinity Forest and Trinity River

Diving Ducks — Lesser Scaups and a Canvasback in the Lower Chain of Wetlands

The caravan of rafting ducks on Texas water in the winter is a concentration of waterfowl from across the continent. Wary of people and sensitive to particular feeding traits many of the oddball bird species are only glimpsed from afar…or not at all. The marshes, swampish backwaters and flood prone bottoms along the Trinity River are a great resource for these birds, way stations and rest areas of a sort.

The ebb and flux of such places make them poor for fish or general recreation so they go ignored. It’s a long twisting walk into these places, fraught with underbrush, deep water crossings and large mats of flood borne snags. The intricate, perplexed and treacherous mazes to humans serve as prime feeding grounds to ducks.

There are still a few older Dallasites who can remember and talk of a time when the great trees once towered here and the bottomland floor was dark and a carpet of fallen leaves in winter. This stretch of bottoms had been largely clear-cut generations before, creating a convoluted mess of small trees fighting for the sunlight, with greenbriar and understory strung between them like concertina wire.

Iced over pond without a name in the Great Trinity Forest

Dog sniffing hog wallows on the shore of a pond in the GTF

Many folks make the the mistake of not getting anywhere near the Trinity during the winter months. Too cold, too muddy, too bland looking. What is bad for man is often a boon for wildlife, sights that few will ever see or know exist. Nearly all the photos in this post(the exception being one Common Merganser photo) were taken within the Great Trinity Forest, Rochester Park’s lake near the Buckeye Trail, the back swamps at the confluence of White Rock Creek at the Trinity River and the Lower Chain of Wetlands and even a photo or two between the levees near Downtown.

Male Canvasback

Most though are places where feral pigs trudged single file across the haunted ridges and deep into the dark hollows the night before. Where beaver tracks and the branches it hauled down beaver slides still smell of the animal’s musk.

The change from vast open expanses of windswept chains of wetland cells to the sheltered hardwood bottomed thick woven stands of marsh dictate the duck species one might find.  The harsh conditions, the cold, the wet and the traverse of some impossible circumstances only add to the reward when many of these ducks come within a near arms reach. The remoteness of such obscure places puts much of the wildlife here off their guard. A human would be the last thing they would ever expect to see.

Male Lesser Scaups

The Central Flyway

Categorized by region, duck migration routes, called flyways are well known. There are 4 major flyways on the continent. The Atlantic Flyway is associated with the Atlantic Coast. The Mississippi Flyway comprises the Mississippi River region and associated rivers. The Central Flyway consists primarily of the Great Plains states, Texas and New Mexico. The Pacific Flyway includes the region from the Rocky Mountains west to the Pacific Coast.

Mouth of White Rock Creek and Trinity River January 2014

Big plains winds hiss across the Central Flyway in the fall and winter. Riding the strong winds of change, ducks filter into the Dallas area starting in November and begin a spring migration by late February and March.

Some of the most elusive, small and some of the most colorful ducks are the Divers.

Shovelers, Teals, Mergansers, Pintail, Scaups, Wigeons round out the crowd of ducks representing the divers and dabblers at Little Lemmon Lake

I very much discourage visiting the Lower Chain of Wetlands due to ongoing safety concerns in early 2014 regarding illegal vehicle access. If you want to roll the dice though, there is a great article and report available which offers a primer on where certain plantings have taken root and where many duck species are likely found to be foraging: http://www.swf.usace.army.mil/Portals/47/docs/PAO/DFE/PDF/Lower_Chain_of_Wetlands_Status_Report_March_2013.pdf

For instance, the Scaups and Ring-Necked ducks are most likely to be found just west of the old Sleepy Hollow Country Club in old stock tank ponds. Canvasbacks due to their food preference are mostly seen on the back side, the east side of Wetland Cell G.

Diving Ducks
Diving ducks typically frequent large,lakes, rivers, and coastal bays where they plunge underwater to feed on fish, shellfish, mollusks and aquatic plants. The large, broad and webbed feet of these ducks, with their strongly lobed toes, act as paddles. In addition, the location of their legs set far back on the body and their relatively small wings help improve diving efficiency.

Male Bufflehead Duck making a takeoff run across Wetland Cell F in the Lower Chain of Wetlands

While these characteristics help with their diving and swimming, they hinder the ability of diving ducks to become airborne. Instead of springing straight out of the water into flight, as dabbling ducks like Mallards are able to do, they must run across the water to build up speed before taking off. Their highly webbed feet and position of the legs to the rear of the body make them more awkward on land than the dabbling ducks.

Male Lesser Scaups in Little Lemmon Lake, Joppa

The diving duck group are actually 3 groups placed together because they have similar feeding habits. This group prefers open, deep-water habitats with plenty of submergent plants (plants rooted in the bottom and growing under the water) and/or aquatic invertebrates. A distinguishing characteristic of divers is that they run along the water to gain flight.  Ten species of diving ducks migrate through the state, with ring-necked ducks and lesser scaup the most abundant. Lesser numbers of redheads, canvasbacks, and greater scaup are occasionally observed in isolated flocks or in association with the more abundant lesser scaup.

Sleeping Ruddy Ducks, part of the Stifftail diving duck family in the Lower Chain of Wetlands

The remaining diving ducks found migrating through Texas include the buffleheads, hooded merganser, common merganser, and ruddy duck. 

Rare sighting, Female Common Merganser at White Rock Lake, January 2014

At left is a female Common Merganser, a real rarity for Dallas and one that had not been documented here in 13 years. The uncommon Common Merganser while not on the Trinity River proper is an interesting field note to include in this posting due to the rare occurrence of such a bird.

 A shortage of suitable habitat and little traditional use of those habitats are the primary reasons diving ducks are not common in most of Texas, except for coastal areas. Historically, except for the major rivers, there were not very many large bodies of open water in North Texas. Therefore, diving ducks used the major rivers for migration corridors. A few pools in these river systems with abundant aquatic foods were used as staging (resting) areas during migration. The recent creation of man-made reservoirs in Texas for municipal water supply, flood control, and power station cooling has expanded the traditional migration patterns of some diving ducks.

Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis

Female Lesser Scaup with snail at Little Lemmon Lake

An awesome swimmer and diver, the Lesser Scaup feeds mostly by diving in shallow water, where it feeds on aquatic plants or invertebrates. It will dive to a maximum depth of around twenty feet, with each dive lasting about 30 seconds, interspersed with surface rest intervals of half a minute when feeding. The lesser scaup will also sometimes feed at the water’s surface, either by grabbing food items from the  surface or by dipping its head and neck below the water.

As a migratory species, the Lesser Scaup winters mainly along the Gulf Coast of the United States and Mexico. In the summer months it may also be commonly found along the Alaskan coast, in northern California, Canada, around the Great Lakes and along the upper Atlantic coast of the U.S. The southern limits of its winter range include southern Mexico, occasionally as far south as northern South America, and most islands in the Caribbean region.

Diving ducks, commonly called pochards or scaups, are a category of duck which feed by diving beneath the surface of the water. They are mainly found in the northern hemisphere. To aid in their swimming under water for food, diving ducks tend to be denser than dabbling ducks and their legs placed further back on their body. They are ungainly walking on ground and their takeoff for flying is labored. Unless really frightened, the diving ducks make a hurried swim away from trouble rather than take flight. The slow casual drift away from a predator or human is the hallmark of many diving ducks.

Canvasback Aythya valisineria

Male Canvasback on the backside, east side of Wetland Cell G

During the morning and evening, the canvasback feeds by diving to the water bottom in search of various plants, insects, small fish, and molluscs.  One favorite food is wild celery, a freshwater plant whose scientific name is Valisneria americana. That’s where the canvasback’s name, Aythya valisineria, comes from. The “Aythya” portion is from Greek for “seabird.”

Female Canvasback left, two male Canvasbacks right

The adult male canvasback is one of the largest of the diving ducks, reaching a weight of about 3 pounds.  The bird’s name comes from the delicate, wavy pattern of lines and dots over a pale gray and white background, resembling an artist’s canvas. The male, known as a drake, has a red rust-colored head and neck and a black breast during breeding season. In the off season, he closely resembles the female, which has a tan head.  The wedge-shaped bill and bright red eyes are other distinguishing features

The canvasback is one of the largest ducks in North America, and this diving duck is a pronounced visitor to Texas lakes and even coastal bays in winter. Easily distinguished by its sloping profile, this duck is unmistakable from any other.

 Ring Necked Duck Aythya collaris

Ring Necked Ducks feeding in heavy flooded brush
Male Ring-Necked Duck aka Ringbill

The Ring-Necked duck is found across Texas in the winter months. Adults are approximately seven to eight inches long and weigh only two pounds, and females are typically smaller than males. Males are mostly black with a white belly and rings of gray around the base of the bill. The female has tan sides, a brown back and a white belly, with a less pronounced bill ring. The female’s eyes are also often a darker color than the male’s eyes.  “Ringbill” is the name hunters have given this diving duck of forested ponds and bogs, because the two white rings on its bill are much more visible than its brownish collar.

Female Ring-Necked Duck

A great swimmer, the Ring-Necked Duck can forage to depths of up to 50 feet in search of plant and animal fare.  Ring-Necked Ducks are mainly vegetarian, typically about 2/3rds of their diet consists of seeds, aquatic weeds and the like. These ducks do supplement their diets with insect larvae, mollusks, worms, and crustaceans like crayfish.

Bufflehead Bucephala albeola

Male Bufflehead with colorful head feathers makes a dramatic takeoff run on the waters of the Lower Chain of Wetlands

The Bufflehead ducks are one of the smallest ducks on the Trinity River but also one of easiest to spot from a long distance. Weighing in at just under a pound, there might be pigeons in Downtown Dallas with more heft.

Male Bufflehead in the Chain of Wetlands

Bufflehead comes from the now seldom used word buffle, meaning ‘buffalo.’  Bufflehead is the condensed version of ‘Buffalo Head’, the name these ducks were originally given. Called petit garrot in French and Hime-Ha-Jiro ‘princess white-wing’ by the Japanese, the bufflehead goes by many names worldwide. The signature feature of the Bufflehead is the large head of the male, seemingly out of place as they are some of the smallest ducks in North America.

Male Buffleheads fighting

Were the males not so brilliant in signature colors, their aggressive territorial bickering would be their species hallmark. Fierce in projecting dominance among their peers, the male Buffleheads are constantly in a scurry to prove who is top duck among the flock.

Male Bufflehead coming in for a landing, notice the wider foot stance than other ducks and the far rearward legs compared with other species

At a distance, the large white patch on the male’s head can look like that of a buffalo or bison.

They are agile swimmers, fliers and divers, and can take flight directly from the surface of the water with only a small space to take off, unlike other diving ducks that require a longer runway to build up to flight speed. They often forage in groups, diving together while leaving one sentry at the surface of the water.

Male Bufflehead starting a signature dive into the water

Male  nearly totally underwater with only a tail to see. Female watches from behind

The Buffleheads feed in a group, staying underwater for 15-20 seconds at a time. A unique part to this feeding is that a sentinel is often left on the surface to lookout for danger. They will take turns watching the water and will call if trouble arises.

Female Bufflehead keeping watch on the surface while the rest of the flock is submerged

The Buffleheads intermingle freely with other ducks on the Trinity, usually feeding in areas where Ruddy ducks are snoozing.

A male Bufflehead navigating through a sleeping raft of Ruddy Ducks

Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis

Female Ruddy Duck at Wetland Cell G

Like many diving ducks, the Ruddy Duck eats insects, insect larvae, snails, mollusks, seeds, and the roots of aquatic plants. It uses its broad bill to strain food from both the bottom mud and the surface of the water. It sinks into the water slowly instead of diving straight down like other diving ducks.

Male Ruddy Duck

The ruddy duck is a small, stocky diving duck 12-16 inches in length with a wingspan of about two feet. It has short, stubby wings and a long, stiff tail that it often holds straight up. The male has a chestnut body; a black crown; a white face; and a wide, bright blue bill. The female is grayish-brown with grayish-white cheeks with a black line running across the side of her face. When it is not breeding season, the male looks similar to the female, and his bill turns grayish-black.

Male Ruddy Duck

The Ruddy Duck is found along the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic Coasts north to British Columbia , Canada on the west coast, and New England on the east. It is also found inland to Missouri from the Gulf Coast. The ruddy duck has also been introduced to Europe and can be found on the British Isles and continental Europe to some degree.

Female ruddys, are plainly colored birds with a line or two crossing the face. These birds are part of a sup-group of ducks called stifftails. A stifftail uses its specialized tail feathers for steering underwater in search of food. Stifftails rarely get about on land and like most waterfowl, they sleep on the water.

Ruddy Ducks sleeping on the water at the Chain of Wetlands, Dallas, Texas

Ruddy Ducks don’t look like much in non-breeding plumage. Given a couple months, the male will develop a signature blue bill and red highlighted feathers. The polar opposite of Ruddys, a bird always adorned, is the Hooded Merganser.

Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus

Hooded Mergansers in Wetland Cell F

Like other divers, Hooded Mergansers are awkward, but quick, flyers. They take off by running on water, and they have a unwavering and rapid wingbeat during flight. They land at high speeds and are often seen ‘skiing’ across the water to come to a stop. They dive well, holding their wings in close to their body and propelling themselves underwater with their feet

At the turn of the last century in the Southern United States, Hooded Mergansers were largely overhunted. In some areas, fish farmers and anglers hunted hooded mergansers because they felt the ducks destroyed the fish populations in those areas. Today, however, they are not a prized sport species. Habitat degradation is now a more pressing concern for their conservation. River channalization, deforestation, and agricultural practices have caused an increase in loose sediment and turbidity, reducing the available habitat for the Hooded Merganser. Not too many in the Dallas area, seeing them is a rarity.

Hooded Mergansers feed in clear water habitats, such as forested ponds, rivers, streams, and flooded forests. Their primary foods include aquatic insects, fish, and crustaceans.

Hooded Mergansers in the floodway near Downtown Dallas, the Dallas Convention Center arches can be seen in the background

Hooded Mergansers headed south towards the I-30 bridge and I-35 exit

These Hooded Mergansers were taking advantage of the rise in the river around New Years, when the river reached the top of the banks in Downtown, sending water and small fish into some of the depressed pot hole ponds that line the floodway between the levees.

Interesting to see, given some time and some habitat, what will fly into what is one of the largest urban areas in the United States.