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Looking for longshots, finding ducks

December 12, 2011
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December has to be the worst month for a Big Year, at least one done on a state or local scale.  The days of heading out to a likely spot and picking up new birds is over.  The only things left are the same birds that were here for the first two and a half months of the year, and you’ve pretty much run through all of them already.  It’s impossible not to be beholden to the rest of the birding community to find your birds for you, as you sit around an monitor the listserv for any local rarities, keys and binoculars in hand.

The recent report of an on-again, off-again Merlin in Wake County, along with a needle-in-a-haystack trio of Horned Larks at a nearby agricultural field, got be out the door to the Mid-Pines Road area south of Raleigh yesterday morning.  The birding was so-so, and the targets failed to show themselves so the slow cruise down the gravel road with the windows open was for naught.  Tangent, we are now in the season where I get why so many male birders go bearded.  Chapped cheeks are no laughing matter, and since I haven’t grown a beard this winter like I usually do, I’m forced to deal with them on a regular basis.  This has been a mistake.  Rest assured, these jowls will be well-haired by the time the new year rolls around. Mark my words.

In any case, with the fields unforthcoming, I headed over to the back end of Lake Wheeler where an assemblage of dappling ducks greeted me.  No Pintails (the last species I need for the year), but plenty of dapper Shovelers, Gadwalls, Wigeons, Mallards and Green-winged Teals.  All in their breeding season finest.  Most ducks, you see, do their pair bonding and mating in the winter so they always look their best in the cold.  At least one of us does.

I wrapped up the trifecta of south Raleigh birding with a quick stop over at Yates Mill County Park.  There wasn’t anything in particular I was looking for except to run up the duck total for the day with the divers that usually hang out on the mill pond.  Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck and the ubiquitous Ruddies were all in their places on the still water.  Several were foraging just under the boardwalk, more or less oblivious to me and the elderly fisherman who shared the bridge.

Ruddy Ducks are obviously not one of the ducks that saves much of their mating ritual for winter.  This subdued look hardly holds a candle to the rufous bodied, blue-billed males in the spring.

The females, for their part, seem to realize nothing is doing.  That little stiff tail is awfully nice though, it gives the Ruddies that distinctive shape that makes them so obvious even at great distances.  A good duck day, and a fine day out, but I stay mired at 206 for another week.

C’mon guys, find some good birds out there already.

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