Clellie Lynch: Ringnecks with ringed bills

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Clellie Lynch

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — "Quackclackquackquack." The eyes of the wood frogs appear on the rippled surface of our pond as they gaze around for a mate all the while seductively quacking like miniature ducks. Blackbirds, grackles and cowbirds sing from bare tree branches. The bluebirds have returned to their nesting box in the field. Song sparrows call from the leafless, tangled shrubbery, while their cousin, the fox sparrow, scrabbles away under the feeder making his annual stopover on his way north. Nature peacefully glides along with the onset of spring, while the human world becomes utterly topsy turvy in an effort to halt the corona virus in its deadly tracks. The entire globe is in self-isolation, if not quarantine.

Shops and stores close; museums and libraries shutter their doors; movie houses remain silent; schools and colleges send students home and resort, where possible, to remote and online learning. Public transportation is nearly at a standstill. Supermarkets shelves look scavenged. It's as if the entire world were under house arrest!

Alas, Danny and I cancel our trip to Portugal, saving finding a hoopoe for another year. Birding trips may be cancelled, but here in the Berkshires, the wide outdoors is still welcoming as early migration begins. Birding in groups may be ill advised, but certainly going alone is fine.

EARLY ARRIVALS

Ducks and geese are among the early groups of avians to head north to their breeding grounds. Scraggly vee-flocks of Canada geese honk-ahonk-ahonk as they wing their way high up in the sky to the wilds up north. On a recent walk along my road at the large pond by Hand Hollow, a flotilla of common mergansers, their gleaming white bodies and dark heads easy to pick out across the water, paddles around near the edges.

In other small ponds Danny and I stop at as we bird around the county, small flocks of ring-necked ducks, Aythya collaris, handsome birds of the scaup or pochard family, serenely float hither and thither. One group is joined by a pair of American widgeon.

These medium-sized ducks, ringnecks, are similar to tufted ducks, but without that tuft. Similar too they are to scaup, but with a darker angular-shaped head, a much blacker back, grayer sides, a prominent white crescent before the wings, and a noticeable whitish ring around the middle of the bill. Unlike scaup, these diving ducks, are essentially fresh water birds, preferring marshes, open areas of swamps and small wooded ponds and lakes. They feast on underwater plants, especially water lily bulbs.

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Whenever the birds paddle close, I search in vain for that nominate, faint, brownish-cinnamon ring around the neck. In 1955, Frank Bellrose in "Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America" did not hesitate to point out that the ring-necked duck is `inappropriately named,' since even if you are holding a specimen in your hand you might not discern that neck ring. Darn right!

Over the years, many ornithologists have lobbied the AOU for the name to be officially changed, more appropriately, to ring-billed duck. In 2017 when this name change was proposed yet again, every member of the AOU committee rejected it. Other proposals discussed that year were: Split Setophaga coronata (yellow-rumped warbler) into 3 species; Place the Cattle egret into the Area family; Split the Loxia curvirostra (red crossbill) into two species. To lump or split, the AOU discussions seem to go on for years before any official pronouncement is made.

Even, the Latinate taxonomic, Aythya, caused much consternation among the naming gurus. Coues, who was a founding member of the AOU in 1883, emphatically stated, "I am willing to follow the AOU in adopting the genus, but not in violating plain rules for the transliteration from Greek to Latin " No correction was ever forthcoming. The genus remains Aythya, a very odd looking word, spelled neither in proper Greek or Latin as my classically educated husband points out.

In the 19th century, ring-necked ducks were not very common here in the Northeast. I find no mention in Hoffmann's "Birds of New England and Eastern New York" (1904). Griscom and Snyder in "Birds of Massachusetts" (1955), tell us of a rapid increase in the state starting around 1922. David St James in "Annotated List of the Birds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts" (2017), lists the first record in the county as 1936. So from small flocks of ten or twenty, we now may come across hundreds as they migrate through our area in the spring and the fall.

'BASTARD BROADBILLS'

In J.P. Girard's "Birds of Long Island" (1844) a short entry combines the ring-necked duck with the tufted using information gleaned from gunners. Gunners (hunters) in the 19th century were really amateur naturalists, many recorded what they shot, when and where. With no handy field guide, the names they called the individual species were passed from hunter to hunter, and, if the hunters traveled, from area to area. Scaup, also known as bluebills or broadbills, was a universal name of a gray and black duck with a dark head. Because the ring-necked duck looked so similar to scaup, these birds became known as ringbills or "bastard broadbills."

Ducks were plentiful at this time and were known by a slew of vernacular names more descriptive than the official "ring-necked duck:" blackhead (Illinois), blackjack (Lake St. Clair), marsh bluebill (South Carolina), and ring-billed shuffler (North Carolina). The brownish red plumage of the female, thought by some to be a separate species, earned her the name creek redhead.

Crocuses are blooming, daffodil spikes peek out of the morning snow. Spring is definitely a'coming. Even though everyone is advised to stay close to home, the great outdoors awaits!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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