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I’ve come across this distinctive duck a few times while out and about. This large, big-headed diving bird has a gently sloping forehead and a stout neck.

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Breeding males have a chestnut head and neck set off against a black chest, with a whitish body and black rear. Females are pale brown in the areas where males are chestnut and black and they have a grayish, rather than white body.

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Canvasbacks breed in the Prairie Pothole Region of North America. They prefer to nest over water on permanent prairie marshes surrounded by cattails and bulrushes, which provide protective cover.

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I only see these ducks in Ohio in the Winter. Canvasbacks migrate through the Mississippi Flyway to their wintering grounds in the mid-Atlantic United States, including the Great Lakes Region.

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The Canvasback dives for its food, which consists mainly of the bases and roots of plants growing under water. Wild celery is particularly favored. They also consume mollusks, insects and some small fish.

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With its distinct, angled head and auburn hues, the Canvasback is one of our most striking waterfowl species and a favorite of mine to see in the wild.

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Snowy Egret

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While staying at North Beach, Maryland each day I walked to a tiny nature preserve, where more-often-than-not I would see this elegant bird. During breeding season adults develop long, wispy feathers on their backs, necks and heads.

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The Snowy Egret is one of North America’s most familiar herons, but it was almost hunted to extinction in the late 1800′s, due to their plumes being in demand as decorations for hats.

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It was then protected and its numbers not only have rebounded, but its range seems to be expanding as its population has increased. It can be seen in marshes, swamps, ponds and shorelines in both fresh and salt water.

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This bird is not only known for its immaculate white feathers, but also for its contrasting yellow feet. It uses its feet to stir up food items – mainly fish and crustaceans, but it also eats worms, insects, snails, snakes, small lizards and frogs.

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Like other herons, this two foot tall species nests in colonies, often with other types of wading birds. It was always nice to see this graceful inhabitant of Chesapeake Bay while on my trip.

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Pied-billed Grebe

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While visiting a lake in southern Illinois, I noticed a pair of these water birds that I have occasionally seen in my home state of Ohio.

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This is the most widespread grebe in the New World, and the most familiar in temperate parts of North America. Pied-billed grebes are small, stocky, and short-necked.

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Although it swims like a duck, the Pied-billed Grebe does not have webbed feet. Instead, each toe has lobes extending out on the sides that provide extra surface area for paddling.

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When disturbed or suspicious, it may sink slowly until only head is above water. This bird is rarely seen in flight. It prefers to escape predators by diving and it migrates at night.

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The Pied-billed Grebe emits a series of hollow cuckoo-like notes “cow-cow-cow-cow, cow, cow, cowp, cowp, cowp,” that slows down at the end. They are often heard before they are seen.

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This bird is also known as the American Dabchick, Carolina Grebe, Devil-diver, Dive-dapper, Dipper, Hell-diver and Water Witch.

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Ring-necked Duck

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While visiting central Indiana last month, I saw this sharply marked bird of gleaming black, gray and white. The species is native to North America, but sightings outside of the continent are becoming increasingly common.

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The “ringneck” name is derived from a faint brownish ring around the base of the neck, which is visible only upon close inspection. A more fitting name would be “Ring-billed Duck,” due to the prominent white ring around the bill.

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In migration and during winter, they inhabit ponds, lakes, slow-moving rivers, and occasionally coastal estuaries, but generally do not inhabit saltwater bays.

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The Ring-necked Duck dives for its food in shallow water and has a more generalized diet (consisting mostly of plants) than do other North American diving ducks in its genus.

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This species is a primary means for dispersal of several types of pond plants and help the plants get to newly established ponds. Seeds the birds eat from the plants are undigestable and get deposited (via duck droppings) at new sites.

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This species is strong and fast and, unlike many diving ducks, can take flight directly from the water without a running start.

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Northern Shoveler

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While visiting Carmel, Indiana last month I observed one of the most outwardly distinctive of the dabbling ducks; its elongated, spoon-shaped bill has comb-like projections along its edges, which filter out food from the water.

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The Northern Shoveler inhabits wetlands across much of North America. The males have iridescent green heads, white chests and rusty sides. Females are grayish-brown overall; some of their feathers have light edging with darker centers.

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Their spatulate bills, equipped with small, comb-like structures on the edges, act like sieves, allowing the birds to skim crustaceans and plankton from the water’s surface. Flocks of shovelers often swim with their bills submerged in front of them, straining food from the muddy soup of shallow waters.

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Mud-bottomed marshes rich in invertebrate life is their habitat of choice. Other dabbling ducks use their flat bills to strain food items from the water, but the spoon-shaped bill of the Northern Shoveler is an adaptation that takes this habit to the extreme.

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Aptly nicknamed the spoonbill, the Northern Shoveler has the largest bill of any duck in North America.

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Trumpeter Swan

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While visiting northwest Ohio recently, I observed several of these huge waterfowl. Trumpeter Swans are listed as Threatened in Ohio. In 1996, Ohio became one of a number of states involved in reintroduction plans to restore them to the Midwest.


These birds were killed for food and skins, first by Indians and then by white men upon arrival on the continent. The plumage trade peaked in the early 1800s and swan populations were dramatically reduced by the mid-1800s. Loss of habitat for this wetland-dependent species resulted in further declines.


Weighing from 25-35 pounds when fully grown, the Trumpeter Swan is the world’s largest waterfowl. Adults usually measure 4-1/2–5-1/2 feet long. When fully extended, their wingspan can reach nearly eight feet.


The long neck of the Trumpeter Swan is an adaptation that allows the bird to access food inaccessible to other species of waterfowl. Trumpeter Swans forage on water and, especially in Winter, on land. Their long necks allow them access submergent vegetation without diving.


Trumpeter Swans inhabit lakes, ponds, large rivers, and coastal bays. They were historically more common in fresh water than salt water, but this is no longer the case.


They are a long-lived, social species.

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If someone is at a park is feeding bread to ducks, there’s a good chance there are Mallards in the fray. Perhaps the most familiar of all ducks, Mallards occur throughout North America and Eurasia in ponds and parks as well as “wilder” rivers, lakes and estuaries. This bird is found in both freshwater and salt water wetlands.


The males (drakes) have a glossy green head and are grey on their wings and belly, while the females (hens) have mostly brown-speckled plumage.


Mallards eat water plants and small animals and are social animals, tending to congregate in groups or flocks of varying sizes. Mallards are “dabbling ducks” – they feed in the water by tipping forward and grazing on underwater and above-water plants. They almost never dive.


These ducks can be very tame, especially those residing in city ponds. This species is the main ancestor of most breeds of domesticated ducks.


Scientifically known as Anas platyrhynchos, the Mallard was one of the many bird species originally described by Carl Linnaeus in his 18th-century work Systema Naturae, and still bears its original binomial name. The scientific name is from Latin Anas, “duck” and Ancient Greek platyrhynchus , “broad-billed” ( from platus, “broad” and rhunkhos, “bill”).


Common over most of the northern hemisphere, the Mallard is a well-known wild duck to many people; it is thought to be the most abundant and wide-ranging duck on Earth.

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A resident of southern swamps, this bird is known as the Water Turkey for its swimming habits and broad tail, and also as the Snake Bird for its habit of swimming with just its long head and neck sticking out of the water. It is a large bird with a long S-shaped neck and a long, pointed bill.

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I saw a few of these interesting creatures on my recent visit to South Carolina. In order to dive and search for underwater prey, like fish and amphibians, the Anhinga does not have waterproof feathers (like ducks do). Because of this, the Anhinga is barely buoyant and it can stay below water more easily and for longer periods of time.

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If it attempts to fly while its wings are wet, this bird has difficulty, flapping vigorously while “running” on the water. To dry its feathers, it will stand with wings spread and feathers fanned open in a semicircular shape, which led to the Anhinga being sometimes referred to as “water turkey.”

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This bird is most often found in freshwater ponds and swamps where there is thick vegetation and tall trees. Using their sharp bills, Anhingas spear fish, flip them in the air and swallow them head-first.

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These birds are found in the warmer parts of the Americas. They are members of the darter family and are related to pelicans and cormorants. I enjoyed seeing these odd, yet cool inhabitants of the Palmetto State.

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Great Egret

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While visiting southern Illinois and searching for reptiles and amphibians along the banks of the Big Muddy River, I came across a number of these majestic birds.

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The Great Egret is a member of the heron family. This bird is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was formed to stop the slaughter of herons for their showy plumes. It is our second largest heron; only the Great Blue Heron (shown in photo above with Great Egrets) is bigger.

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In the early 20th century, they were almost hunted into extinction for their long, attractive feathers that were commonly used as decoration for ladies hats, but their numbers have increased over most of its range and they continue to expand their territories. During the breeding season, both males and females grow long lacy, delicate and flowing plumes on their backs that curl over their tails.

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With a wingspread of 55 inches, their wings are longer and wider than most other white herons. During the day, they forage alone or in mixed flocks, catching fish by standing motionless in the water. The neck has a characteristic kinked S-curve. When prey comes within striking distance, they spear it with their long, sharp bill. The largest part of their diet consists of fish, frogs and crayfish.

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A group of egrets has many collective nouns, including a “congregation,” “heronry,” “RSVP,” “skewer,” and “wedge” of egrets.

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Ring-billed Gull

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This is Ohio’s most common gull – it is also easy to identify. The head, neck and underparts are white and the relatively short bill is yellow with a dark ring. Its back and wings are silver gray.

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As you might expect gulls usually are found near large bodies of water; these were photographed near Lake Erie. Though this species is also a familiar sight in the shopping mall parking lots of the United States, where it can regularly be found congregating in large numbers.

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These birds forage for food and pick up objects while swimming, walking or wading. They also steal food from other birds and frequently scavenge. They have an omnivorous diet which may include insects, fish, grain, eggs, earthworms and rodents. These birds are opportunistic and have adapted well to taking food discarded or left unattended by people.

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Ring-billed Gulls nest in colonies on the ground, or sometimes in trees near lakes. They often nest near other water birds. The male and female work together to build the nest out of twigs, sticks, grasses, leaves, lichens and mosses.

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Females usually lay three eggs. The eggs are light blue, green or brownish and spotted. Both the male and female both incubate the eggs for about 20 to 31 days. After the chicks hatch, both parents take care of them.

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Ring-billed Gulls are highly social, occupying large colonies, especially during the breeding season. They defend small territories within nesting colonies. They engage in play, dropping objects while airborne, then swooping down to catch them.

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They often associate with other species of gulls, ducks and cormorants. By forming mixed flocks, birds help each other stay alert for potential danger.

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