Some turn their eyes south to the Gulf Coast as spring break approaches. However, in the waterfowl world, many birds are coming back from this region. Some of these birds may spend their “spring break” in a wetland near you.
Over the last few weeks there have been quite a few different species passing through and looking quite dapper. The drakes are all trimmed out in their breeding plumage and trying to impress the girls…so perhaps my spring break hook isn’t too far off. To name a few, bufflehead, ring-necked ducks, mallards, northern shovelers, northern pintail, green-winged teal and blue-winged teal have been buzzing overhead, foraging in the shallowly flooded pools and mudflats, and resting on the open water.
Flying hundreds of miles, locating good grub, finding a partner and keeping pace with the pack is enough to leave a few spring breakers worse for wear by the end of just one week. Just imagine if your life and potential success depended on these kinds of circumstances.
This energetic marathon is what waterfowl go through every year. Flying costs a duck 12 times as much energy as just sitting around. In the last few months, males have been competing in courtship flights and trying to show their potential partners who is in the best shape. Once a hen picks out a drake, the new pair starts searching for seclusion from the chaotic competition. This gives them time to strengthen their seasonal pair bond and focus on foraging because energy isn’t the only nutritional requirement these birds need to survive.
The sharp-looking plumage of a drake doesn’t come free. The springtime alternate molt requires proteins to manufacture these new bright feathers. Additionally, the hens have to stock up on fats and more proteins to produce eggs once they reach the breeding grounds because the resources up north are timed to benefit the hatchlings, not the arriving parents. In the nutritional crunch time of spring, many waterfowl can find their dietary requirements in the buggy buffets that are available in moist soil habitats. The bugs themselves are feasting on microbes, decaying vegetation and each other in the saturated mud and shallowly flooded habitats. During wet springs, flooded patches of weeds aren’t hard to find across the Midwestern landscape, but in dry springs managed wetlands can be an oasis of habitat for migrating waterfowl.
This is why conservation areas like Duck Creek and others along the flyway are important even outside of the waterfowl hunting season. Migration stop-over areas help these birds rest and re-fuel so they can reach the breeding grounds in good condition. Better body condition means a better chance at breeding success, which then translates on to their fall flight.
Granted, there are other things that contribute to the fall flight, like the habitat conditions on the breeding grounds. However, for that to have an impact the birds must get there first and as you can see, spring migration can be quite the dietary gauntlet.
Whether you’re traveling south or not this March, you’re invited to take a break at Duck Creek to see which feathered fowl are passing through on their annual trek back north.