American widgeon

The American widgeon has made its presence known in Pennsylvania.

Dave Wolf, for The Sentinel

The time has arrived for many species of birds — including ducks, geese, songbirds and those gorgeous hummingbirds — to begin their migration southward toward milder wintering grounds.

We wait to take in our backyard hummingbird feeder, debating whether or not we should leave it up into early October, just in case a few stragglers pass by. When it comes to their journey, timing is the key, and we joked about leaving a note for our brilliantly colored visitors, telling them it was time to depart. But, then nature knows far better than we do, while the late summer sun is still on their wings, something inside them whispers “Go!"

I doubt that anyone who has ever seen a male wood duck would dispute the magnificent rainbow of colors it has been blessed with. Chuck Fergus, long time writer of “Wildlife Notes” for the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) penned, “The wood duck is our most brilliantly colored duck. Its scientific name, Aix sponsa, can be loosely translated as 'a waterfowl in wedding dress.'”

Wood ducks migrate south for the winter. Some seek out common roosting and feeding sites, grouping in flocks of less than a hundred, to several thousand. Pennsylvania band surveys show most of our homegrown woodies winter in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

The fall migration of waterfowl begins in late August, peaks in October and ends sometime in December. The long list of diving ducks in PA include: the canvasback, redhead, ring-necked, greater scaup, lesser scaup, oldsquaw, bufflehead, hooded merganser, common merganser, red-breasted merganser, common goldeneye, black scoter, surf scoter, white-winged scoter and ruddy ducks. Diving ducks winter along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, across the southern states, and into Mexico and Central America.

Puddle ducks — also called dabbling ducks — are the largest and most widespread group of waterfowl in the world; they include the wild ducks familiar to most people. Nine species commonly found in Pennsylvania consist of: the American black duck, gadwall, northern pintail, green- and blue-winged teal, widgeon, and northern shoveler. The mallard and wood duck are also included in the category of puddle ducks. In autumn, puddle ducks fly south, along with diving ducks and geese. Some puddle ducks occasionally winter in Pennsylvania, however nearly all spend the cold months across the southern United States, or in Central America.

The southern migration is the perfect time to get "out there,” and observe these amazing birds winging their way toward warmer climates. It is really an incredible feat, when you consider all the perils that lie ahead of them in their journey.

The mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, is the most common duck in the United States, North America, and all of the Northern Hemisphere. It is among the best known, and most widely recognized of all wildlife. The species possesses the largest breeding range of any bird on the continent, nesting across Canada and Alaska, south to California, New Mexico, Kansas, Ohio and Virginia.

Taxonomists recognize seven different subspecies.

In fall and winter, most mallards fly south when ice and snow begins to cover their feeding and resting areas. Among puddle ducks, the mallard and the closely-related black ducks are the latest fall migrants, often remaining in the northern regions as long as open water prevails. Many of the mallards found here in the fall are from breeding grounds in Ontario, Quebec and the Great Lakes states.

We are always amazed when watching those V’s of Canada Geese, creasing the sky. Even when not migrating, they are a sight to behold, and we are always surprised how few glance skyward when they hear the familiar music.

Three distinct Canada goose subspecies occur in Pennsylvania. Two are migrants that breed in Canada; the third breeds here. The migrants comprise geese from the Southern James Bay population (B. c. interior), which fly over westernmost Pennsylvania, and the Atlantic population (B. c. Canadensis), which migrate over eastern Pennsylvania. The ones we see in our central Pa location are giant Canada geese (B. c. maxima). Resident geese are largely non-migratory; they nest and winter here. The growth of this population has been phenomenal. Prior to 1935, no Canada geese nested anywhere in Pennsylvania and today, they are found in every county.

As autumn approaches, geese also prepare to migrate. Family groups gather in small flocks, leave their subarctic breeding grounds, and fly leisurely to staging areas along the route south. Migrating geese travel by day or night, flying until tired, and then landing to feed and rest.

Honkers fly in V’s or occasionally in single, diagonal lines. A trailing goose encounters less air resistance, thus uses less energy, because of the turbulence set up by the bird flying just ahead.

Flight altitudes vary with weather conditions, distance to be flown and time of year. In heavily overcast skies, honkers might fly only a few hundred feet off the ground. Under fair skies, they tower up almost a mile. An average derived from airplane pilots' reports is 2,000 feet, with 64 percent flying between 750, and 3,500 feet.

Migratory geese of the Atlantic Flyway winter primarily in the Chesapeake Bay and Delmarva Peninsula regions. Smaller numbers winter from as far north as New York and coastal New England, to southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The American coot is an uncommon breeder in Pennsylvania, but a fairly regular migrant and winter resident. During mild winters, when lakes and rivers don’t freeze over, numerous coots may winter in Pennsylvania. Rails, coots and moorhens are classified as migratory game birds, with hunting seasons, and bag limit frameworks set annually by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In Pennsylvania, only the Sora and Virgina rail, along with the moorhen and coot, are legal game. Coots may be found in large rafts, numbering hundreds of birds, on open lakes and ponds during winter.

The mourning dove is a member of the family Columbidae, and is closely related to the rock dove (domestic pigeon). It breeds across all of the lower 48 states, much of Mexico, the southern and western edges of Canada, and into Alaska; it winters from Massachusetts, southern Michigan, Nebraska and California, south to Panama.

Migration of this species is in full swing by mid-September, or early October. Flocks of a few to 20 or more birds travel together, flying in the morning, resting and feeding at noon, flying in the afternoon, feeding in the evening, and roosting at night. If the winter weather is not too severe, some birds spend the entire year in Pennsylvania.

The migration has begun, so keep your eyes to the sky, and take pleasure in observing their miraculous journey. I have even noticed the preparation of some “human snowbirds” as they anticipate their winter escape to sunny Florida.

Dave Wolf may be reached by email at wolfang418@msn.com

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