Saturday’s brilliant afternoon sunshine lured me down to the Kirkland waterfront. My kids were busy at a play date and a birthday party, so I had a few hours of fading daylight to wander through my local patch. Many birders have a regular park or wildlife area that they visit frequently, observing how this familiar “patch” of land changes throughout the seasons. While I don’t have an official patch, the place I visit most often (especially when I only have an hour or so free) is Juanita Bay Park (and nearby Juanita Beach Park) in Kirkland, about five minutes from my house. This little green space hugging the shores of Lake Washington always has some interesting wildlife present. It’s one of the best places near my house to see a Wood Duck:
Although not uncommon, Wood Ducks are often shy and retiring birds. But the boardwalk between Juanita Bay Park and the adjacent Beach Park is a great place to see them, as they seem to have become accustomed to people walking through their habitat. I almost never fail to see them there, often at close range, and they always make me smile.
There were many other species of ducks present on Saturday: small black and white Buffleheads, rafts of Scaup, and a couple hulking Canvasbacks. And of course Mallards. Mallards are almost an afterthought. They are abundant throughout almost all of North America, and often quite tame. They beg for bread at many small urban and suburban ponds, loaf in the puddles of parking lots, munch grass on the lawns of homes and office buildings, and paddle through the shallow water of roadside ditches. Most birders don’t pay much attention to Mallards. They are neither rare nor hard to see nor a challenge to identify. I guess they are a bit like a piece of common granite to a rock hound, or a 2010 quarter to a coin collector – “I’ve seen a million of ’em.”
Of course, if you’ve ever bothered to looked closely at a 2010 quarter, they are quite spectacular. I used to be a small-time coin collector as a kid (mostly pocket change), and I love to study the new designs. There are several different versions of the 2010 quarter, but here is the Mount Hood one (showing the reverse, image courtesy of the US Mint):
I think these quarters are quite beautiful, and worthy of appreciation – even if over 68,000,000 of them were minted, and they are only worth 25 cents each.
As with the new quarters, Mallards are spectacular and under-appreciated. They are large and elegant ducks. The male sports an iridescent green head that literally sparkles in the sunlight, a chestnut breast, golden bill, silver sides and back, and a cute curly tail.
The female is more understated, but she is a beautiful mottled brown with a flash of teal and white in the wing (this colorful wing patch, present in many ducks, is called the speculum).
Why do so many birders dismiss these gorgeous creatures as “junk birds”? Why do so many people ooh and aah over Wood Ducks while ignoring nearby Mallards, which are almost as flashy and charismatic? I suspect if Mallards were rare, or at least shy and hard to see, birders would pay them a lot more attention. It would also help if they had a more exotic name, like maybe Emerald-hooded Quackaneer. Wouldn’t you be a lot more interested in seeing the extremely rare and reclusive Emerald-hooded Quackaneer than the Mallard who comes to untie your shoelaces looking for a handout?
Anyhow, I was enjoying my walk in the park, admiring the Canvasbacks and ignoring the Mallards, when a duck that had been swimming underwater suddenly popped up next to me. I did a double take. And then a triple take. It was a Mallard. And with a small leap forward it disappeared again under the surface of the lake. I was a bit dumb-founded. This was no ordinary Mallard.
To explain my confusion, it helps to know that birders often separate ducks into two convenient groups: dabblers and divers. Dabbling ducks usually forage by working their way along the surface, munching on floating plant matter and small invertebrates. Or they use their feet to tip their heads and necks under the surface, leaving their rear ends bobbing high in the air. Diving ducks, as their name suggests, submerge themselves completely using their feet to propel themselves under the water in search of plants and small animals. David Allen Sibley, in his terrific book The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, shows a diagram (from page 197):
Mallards, as shown in Sibley’s diagram (the middle duck), are dabblers. You can see them feeding in their characteristic manner at your local pond or lake. They look like this:
They are not divers. They are dabblers. My field guide says so. In the class that I taught for Seattle Audubon last month, *I* said so. Mallards don’t dive underwater. Except, apparently, this one does. The Mallard re-surfaced close by, and eyed me to see if I was hiding any bread in my coat. “Mallards don’t dive underwater,” I informed him. He responded by jumping back under the water. This was not a quick dip; he stayed underwater for at least 10 seconds, going down several feet. I whipped out my iPhone, suddenly realizing that I should capture this amazing moment on video. I can’t embed video on this blog, but I did upload a short clip to youtube. The quality isn’t great, in part because I cleverly used one fat finger to cover half of the lens – but you can see the video of the incredible diving Mallard here.
When I got home, I researched the matter a bit more. Several reference books said things like “Mallards typically feed at the surface, and only very rarely dive underneath the water.” Very rarely, huh? I have watched birds pretty seriously now for about 13 years, and I’ve never seen a diving Mallard before. Is this a one-in-a-million event? Or is it an uncommon but regularly occurring one, an event that I arrogantly ignored because I wasn’t paying attention to the lowly Mallards? Perhaps it is the former, and I should feel very lucky to have witnessed such an extraordinarily rare and unusual behavior. But I’m actually betting on the latter. In any event, the diving Mallard was an instructive reminder that amazing things are all around us, if we just take a minute to actually notice them.