Wildlife: Waterfowl cherish open water

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There's still a lot of ice on the region's lakes. That ice, coupled with the northward surge of migrating waterfowl, means ducks, geese and swans are forced to stop for rest at whatever open water they find. The resulting concentration of birds affords opportunistic birders close-up views of beautiful and storied waterfowl.

I had that in mind last week with some free time between appointments, so I drove to Dunlap Creek Lake, a Fayette County park just west of Uniontown. The 44-acre surface was a sheet of white ice, contrasting with brown hills where the snow had melted away, and a scattering of ice anglers lurked over their holes at mid-lake.

Where Stony Point Road tracks the shore, a stream oozes out of a wetland and enters at the lake's upper end. At its mouth was a pocket of open water, the size of a basketball court, and that liquid was crowded with ducks and geese. I eased my truck up along the guardrail, slowed and stopped but chose not to step out. The nearer birds edged away but none flushed and flew.

Three Canada geese stood on the ice -- each on one leg -- and a pair of mallards dipped into and out of the lake. But the real prize was massed against the ice shelf in a tight, restless knot. About 40 redhead ducks jostled there with four canvasbacks, two drakes and two hens.

Canvasbacks and redheads are strikingly handsome ducks that seldom yield such close observation. Redhead drakes show a lustrous burgundy-red head, accented by a yellow eye and black-tipped ivory bill. On the water, their black "bow" and "stern" frame a gray midsection. Hens are tawny-brown with darker head and black eye.

Canvasbacks are bigger, slightly larger than a mallard, with plumage that superficially resembles the redhead. At rest, drakes exhibit a rusty-red head and black breast but gleaming white back. The canvasback's long profile, sloping from head crest to bill tip, distinguishes it from any other duck.

Leg bands returned by hunters show that canvasbacks and redheads that rest in Western Pennsylvania left their winter quarters on Chesapeake Bay and the North Carolina banks, headed for nesting grounds on Canada's southern prairies.

Both are classed among ducks designated "divers," which submerge their bodies below the surface to hunt for food. That explains why the normally shy "cans" and redheads didn't flush at my approach. Diver ducks can't flush straight up from the water like mallards or teal. They must run a long way across water to take flight. Having dumped into a tiny patch of open water, they'll have to wait until more ice melts to resume their migration.

Take advantage of these temporary conditions to see waterfowl that normally pass high overhead. But try not to unduly stress the stranded travelers.

Scott Shalaway is recovering from surgery and will be back soon. Ben Moyer is a freelance writer from Farmington, Pa.

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