Nature Watch: Identifying ‘river ducks,' woodpeckers


Hummers are here!

Barbara in Lee wrote: "We just saw our first hummingbird today, May 4, Fairview St., Lee."

So, if the weather has kept you from putting out your hummingbird feeder, do it today! And if like so many other readers, you have forgotten the proper ration between water and sugar (the only two ingredients I recommend) it is one part sugar to four parts water.

Q: The West Branch of the Housatonic runs through my backyard. We get well over 100 mallards hanging around all winter plus a few Black Ducks, and once a solo Wood Duck.

A couple of months ago a duck cruised by that I could not identify using my field guide or a number of websites. A couple of days ago another swam by, and I tried again. I believe it is a duck, but I also searched for geese and again could not find out what it is. Larger than a mallard, had an iridescent green head, very white throat and brown body that was a bit mottled, not solid brown. I believe the beak was yellow, but am not certain of that. -- Craig, Pittsfield

A: It could be a domesticated mallard. I can think of no other waterfowl that matches your description. The adult male common merganser has a metallic green head and white front during breeding plumage (November through July) and is often a river duck, but presents itself with considerable white (flanks, breast) with a black back, and not a brown body. The adult male northern shoveler matches your description somewhat better, but I do not think of them as "river ducks." Keep in mind mallards do interbreed and there are a number of domestic ducks that you will not find in field guides.

Q: I have recently noticed two woodpeckers visiting our suet feeder that we hang from a second floor window. To me they look alike except for size. The larger has a splash of red behind the head, the smaller one doesn't. Am I correct in thinking this is a parent and its young? It seems very early. I first noticed the small one in mid April. -- Jerome, Pittsfield

A:The two nearly identical woodpeckers are hairy and a downy woodpeckers, two entirely different species. The next time you see them, look at the bill -- the hairy has a large bill for its size, while the downy has a small bill for its size. Males have a red marking on the back of the head (in both), while females do not. You have a male of one species and a female of the other. The young will come later in the season, and by the time they are introduced to your suet feeder, will be roughly the same size as the parent birds.


Get outdoors:

Birding Beyond Your Backyard (at) Housatonic Flats in Great Barrington

Saturday, May 17, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

This free walk will help beginning enthusiasts transition from feeder birds to the birds of field and forest. Join Berkshire Natural Resources Council and the Hoffmann Bird Club at the Housatonic Flats Reserve where terrain is flat with level ground along the Housatonic River. Wear long pants and shoes; bring water and a snack. And don't forget insect spray. Housatonic Flats is on Route 7 in Great Barrington, just north of the WSBS radio tower, right across the street from Chelsea and Company Antiques (434 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington).

For more information, contact; Doug at (413) 499-0596.

Questions and comments for Thom Smith:


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