EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> An April sun inches over the horizon and glows brightly through the spiky trees. The grass is greening dotted here and there with golden daffodils now standing tall after that untimely snowstorm. Goldfinches populate the feeders constantly twittering to one another. Hundreds of juncoes search for tidbits underneath. Days are quite warm now; nights, too.
The phoebe calls quite insistently from the barn rooftop, but has not yet decided which old nest to rebuild. The tree swallow swoops over the field, lands first on the wire and then perches atop one of the birdhouses. Mrs. Bluebird dips from wire to lawn a few times before heading to the other bird house. I watch as she disappears into the box. Maybe this year, the bluebirds will not be bullied and will remain to hatch a brood. Spring has definitely arrived!
Signs of spring
My morning walk at this time of year is always reminiscent of May Swenson's line in her poem "April Light": "In the book of spring/the bare limbed torso/is the first illustration." The limbs are bare, but now bumps of growing buds are quite visible. Stars of yellow dandelions join the stalky coltsfoot poking through the leaf litter along the sides of the road. Chipping sparrows are in the spruce trees; swamp sparrows are in the swamp. I walk among many small, spring azures flittering about a foot above the road. These exquisite bluish-purple, or purplish-blue, tiny butterflies are one of the first to appear when the weather warms.
Further afield, Danny and I, when out and about, check the usual farm ponds, fields and marshes for signs of spring. Marsh marigolds, or cowslips, are blooming in shallow waters and wetlands. Verdant patches of skunk cabbage appear next to streams and creeks in the woods.
At our favorite farm pond in Old Chatham, N.Y., killdeer slice through the sky and call, kill-DEER, kill-DEER, before landing and disappearing into the tall grass. Canada geese waddle through the mud as they mingle with the cows.
Blackbirds and grackles send up a discordant chorus as they perch in the trees surrounding the pond. Four small, ducks paddle away from the road toward the creek. Danny says, "green-winged teal," just as I say, "blue-winged teal." We are both correct; there's a pair of each!
Green-winged teal, Anas crecca, are definitely more common than the blue-winged, Anas discors. We usually record greenwings on both the May Birdathon and the December Christmas Count. Bluewings, though, are always a treat. Green-winged teal tend to nest further north, while the blue-winged are more prairie birds and can be found throughout the midwest and Canada.
Both species are abundant in their regular breeding territories. Check out our ponds and lakes, though, and you might be surprised and come across small, beautiful teal. Occasionally they do nest here, too.
Both species are easy to identify especially at this time of year when feathers are fresh. For the male, the shiny cinnamon head illustrated with a paisley of green and a white bar on the side of the breast are definitive field marks for the green-winged teal; while the white crescent on the grayish head and the white hip-patch identify the blue-winged teal.
Female ducks on the other hand, are always difficult to tell especially if the mate is not nearby. Bent, in descriptions in the "Life Histories of North American Birds," (1925) uses terms such as "mummy brown," "Dresden brown," "hair brown" and "buckthorn brown." I can only imagine what these variations are. In Terres' "Encyclopedia of North American Birds" (1980), the females are described only as "mottled or speckled brown" which certainly encompasses Bent's pinpointed colors.
Both species have dark green speculums which possibly gives us the color, teal, though I have always thought the color is more bluish-green than the illustrated green in the field guides. The word, teal has no color definition in the OED. Teal is derived from the Dutch "teling" meaning "generation" or "brood." Why the word, teal, came to mean these particular small ducks is not exactly clear.
Nor is it clear how the color came to be called teal.
Teal have for centuries been the favorite of gunners and hunters. Small, agile and quite fast they are a challenge to the adventurous marksman. Tender and tasty, they are a boon to the adventurous chef. The term of venery for a group of these dabbling ducks is "a spring of teal," called thus because, when startled by humans, they rise up quickly and dash away.
Cleverly, blue-winged teal are not especially fond of the cold and arrive later than other ducks and leave earlier, often bypassing the hunting season in the northerly areas. We did see hundreds, if not thousands, of green-winged teal last October in Quebec. While we were birding on one portion of the refuge, hunters were active on another portion.
No cinnamon here
The third teal species in North America is the cinnamon teal found west of the Rockies. Easy to identify as they are a lovely cinnamon color. We often see them in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Curiously, when we were coming back from Canada and stopped at the Ausable Marsh wildlife area just north of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain, the faded sign that identifies the ducks for the hunters includes the cinnamon teal.
I wonder if there was, or is, a program to introduce this species in New York State. Needless to say, although cinnamon teal would be a beautiful addition to our birding list, we did not see any.
Teal in the farm pond, wood duck in the lake on the road, common mergansers in both areas — one never knows what one will see when spring is in full fig!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.