Soon the ice will break up on Evergreen Lake, and migrating ducks will begin to appear. Usually blue-winged teal are the first to arrive. It is interesting to keep track of the large variety of ducks that can be seen on this little lake.
Ducks are usually divided into two main groups. The so-called tip-up ducks or puddle ducks are those that tip their tail up into the air, and their necks and heads down into the water to feed in relatively shallow water. There are 16 species of puddle ducks in four genera. The second group, usually referred to as diving ducks or sea ducks, is usually found in deep water where they dive head first to considerable depths to catch fish and to eat water plants and animals. They are often found in ocean water, and there are 23 species in 11 genera in this group.
This sounds simple, but be careful. Tip-up ducks can be found diving at times, and diving ducks will dabble in shallow water. The handsome pintail duck is one of the ducks that seems to have habits of both groups. Although they prefer to be in shallow water, they are as much at home in brackish saltwater marshes as they are in prairie sloughs. When feeding in saltwater marshes along the Atlantic coast, they often fly out to sleep in the safety of the deep ocean during the day, when the hunters and their dogs usurp the marshes. They are very agile and wary. The slightest signs of movement or glint from a gun will cause them to take off in direct, upward flight. They seem to jump right out of the water.
Pintails winter from about southern Indiana southward into the southeastern states, the West Indies and Panama. They are one of the earliest arrivals in the spring as they return to nest across the northern Alaska and Canada tundra. I well remember their early arrival in western New York where the Lake Ontario plain is underlaid with an impervious layer that causes the snowmelt and spring rains to form many shallow ponds between Niagara Falls and Rochester. Locally, these temporary ponds are known as the sinks.
They appear early, with the first warm days of March, and are often filled with many varieties of migrating puddle ducks. The pintails are the first to arrive. One day, the newly formed ponds will be empty, and the next they will be covered with hundreds of handsome pintails. Most of these sinks are now encompassed in the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, so they will not be drained but will remain to provide food and shelter for migrating ducks for future generations.
The pintail is unmistakable in his handsome white breast, gray back, reddish-brown head and his exceptionally long tail. The female also has a long tail but not nearly as long as the male’s. It is the two central tail feathers, which are very long and pointed, that give this duck its name.
When they do stop at Evergreen Lake, they do not stay long for they are migrants headed farther north as most of the ducks are that we see here. Only the mallards stay here all summer and nest nearby in some secluded corner. Blue-winged teal most certainly could nest here, but our wetlands are small and the lake area has far too much activity for them to feel comfortable. Perhaps one day they will find a place that is a bit quieter such as the ponds at Hiwan or other ponds.