Thursday, July 19, 2018

Mallard Family At Union Bay

Here is a recent post from the Union Bay Watch Blog published by Larry Hubbell, long-time local photographer and birder.

Here also is an in-depth article about Larry and his work.

Duckling Distraction
On Thursday while I was heading home, I happened to notice this female duck brooding her young. She looked like a mallard, although generally the females have at least some orange  on the outer edge of their bills. The all dark bill made me question myself. I wondered if this duck might belong to a different species.
In any case, the dark bill gave her a uniquely, beautiful look. I found her beauty and mystery mesmerizing, plus the ducklings crowding under her breast where also pretty hard to resist.
A few minutes earlier, one of the ducklings took a moment to peer out at the dangers of the world before turning tail and snuggling back under its mother.
My focus was broken by the splash of a duck diving below the surface.

There were three birds in the water between us and they were all diving below the surface.

Their splashes were quite distracting. I had seen the same three ducks a few minutes earlier. 

They looked like miniature mallards. Their diving behavior bewildered me because Mallards are classified as dabbling ducks, as opposed to a number of other species which are referred to as diving ducks. Later while doing research, I would learn there are a few references to Mallards diving. If you click on the previous link and look under the heading, Feeding Behavior, you will see one such reference.

Having never seen Mallards behave this way, I attempted to photograph their unusual behavior.

They dived with essentially the same speed as Western Grebes, quickly.

 This left me with numerous photos of water splashing up in the air.

 Occasionally, I actually caught a bit of a tail before they disappeared below the surface.

They would stay under water for 3 or 4 seconds before resurfacing. I never saw any food in their bills, so I am guessing they were swallowing something relatively small while still submerged.

When one swam in front of a full grown female Mallard, I realized this was an excellent opportunity for a comparison. The diving duck looked to be roughly the size of a Green-winged Teal, relative to the adult female.

When one of the young climbed totally out of the water I noticed the white sprouts of feathers on the left 'hip', in an area which will ultimately be covered by wing feathers, when the duck matures.

Relatively small wings might actually make it easier for young ducks to propel themselves underwater. However, since I could not see what they were doing below the surface I have no data to support this possibility. Still, I wonder if juvenile ducklings might be more inclined to dive due to a temporary optimal sizing of their wings during their development. 

Even though the young ducks were close to the size of Green-winged Teals, their bills where far more similar to Mallards than the thin little black beaks of Teals.

I found it hard to believe these young ducks were anything other than Mallards.

 I visually reviewed Sibley's drawings of all the dabbling and diving ducks.
I have found no other likely candidate species.

After a few minutes, the last of the three 'diving ducks' splashed its way out of sight.

Back on shore, one of the very young ducklings decided to leave the crowded basement and climb upstairs for a better view.
Later, I would learn there were seven other siblings huddled under the mother duck.

You can hardly blame the little duckling for wanting some fresh air and a more personal relationship with its mother.

Ultimately, the mother could only take so much movement and squirming. She headed for the water, giving the adventurous duckling a short ride to the shore.

Seeing the Mallard duckling on its mother's back was a first for me. It reminded me of a previous post regarding Pied-billed Grebes. It was titled, The Mother Ship.

Seeing the blue speculum on the mother duck removed any doubts that she was a Mallard. Click on the highlighted link to see examples of various identifying duck speculums.

 The young ducklings followed the mother to the water.
Looking at the spots on the young ducklings made me wonder if the whitish 'hip' feathers on the juvenile diving ducklings might be the remnant of the last yellow spot which we can see on these much younger birds.
The mysteries continued. The mother and her ducklings wandered close to a full-sized female Mallard. The large female appeared to nip at the smaller, black-billed mother duck. This seemed to prompt the mother to fly away.

The ducklings went on about their business of searching for food.

I can only assume the mother will be back. But I find myself bewildered by the size difference between the two 'mature' female mallards. There is far more going on in nature than I understand. Could it be that the smaller female is the result of a Mallard breeding with some smaller species of duck? or Could the size and bill color differences just be natural variation inside the Mallard species? 

Watching one of the young ducklings diving under the water sure seems like a fitting conclusion for this bewildering set of experiences.

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