Slow down and look closer – our 20 miles of trail in Lawrence and Hopewell Townships host an abundance of birdlife, and we want you to be able to keep them all straight. Welcome to Feathered Friends of the LHT, an ongoing series of “field guides” to Mercer County birds.
Migration is over and many of our most charismatic and colorful songbirds and warblers won’t be back until spring. Of course, we can always count on our hardy winter residents — but don’t forget about ducks. New Jersey is home to a broad array of ducks and other water birds in the fall and winter. So, keep your eyes out for these feathered friends at Rosedale Lake and other wet locations all winter long.
American Wigeon, courtesy of Uccelli Photography, also known as JohnSaveria Photography
American wigeons (Mareca americana) — who are generally winter-only residents in New Jersey —congregate in flocks in marshlands, large lakes, coastal estuaries, and in fields and meadows. Unlike many other types of ducks — they frequently feed in deep water or on land. These sneaky ducks often steal their food — plant material, algae, grains and seeds, and snails — from other birds like coots and diving ducks. Often as long as 23 inches, with rounded heads and trim, white-grey bills, the males are easy to spot thanks to their tawny coloring and bright emerald heads. Females are duller — speckled medium brown and white with snowy breasts. American widgeons utter classic duck quacks, along with whistles; and females lay five to 12 eggs in their nesting range up north in Canada and the Upper Midwest. Females incubate and feed the young as males often move along before the ducklings even hatch. Read more at Audubon.
Ring-necked Duck, courtesy of Uccelli Photography, also known as JohnSaveria Photography
Ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris) are true winter residents here in New Jersey, where you can spot them along slow-moving rivers, in woodland lakes and ponds, and in coastal wetlands. You’ll often see them in mixed flocks of ducks — both divers and dabblers — but they’re easy to spot as they can take flight directly from the water. The ringed necks they are named for are a part of the male duck’s plumage but are often hard to spot. Instead, look for a graphic black and white duck with a grey and white bill and orange eyes. Females are slightly smaller and chestnut and tawny brown with a dark grey bill and red-brown eyes. They feed on aquatic insects; and they rarely make much noise — sometimes a purr-like sound. Females lay six to 14 eggs and incubate and feed the brood. Read more at Audubon.
Double-crested Cormorant, courtesy of Uccelli Photography, also known as JohnSaveria Photography
Double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) are common and adaptable; you can spot them in fresh or salt water, in large reservoirs or small ponds — nearly any aquatic habitats and at any time of year. When swimming quickly through the water, double-crested cormorants — the most widely spread of the cormorants — appear ducklike. But, when on land or perched in trees, you’ll notice they are more upright and not quite a duck. Larger than a mallard, they are sleek, black birds with hooked orange bills and turquoise eyes. Their double-crests are small and white and often hard to spot. Males and females are indistinguishable; and they feed on fish, mollusks, reptiles and amphibians, and plant material. Double-breasted cormorants may appear slick and refined but their calls are anything but — listen for deep, guttural grunts and croaks. Females lay one to seven eggs and both parents will incubate and feed their chicks. Read more at Audubon.
Cormorants appear in Greek mythology and can represent a bad omen or bad luck — but others believe they symbolize hard-won prosperity.
Wood Ducks, courtesy of Uccelli Photography, also known as JohnSaveria Photography
Wood ducks (Aix sponsa) were threatened with extinction early in the last century due to hunting and habitat loss. While still a rare site, the species has recovered and even expanded its range. Closely related to another beautiful, colorful duck — the Mandarin duck of Asia — these stunners live in fresh, slow-moving waterways surrounded by woodlands, especially lakes and ponds with large, overhanging trees. Wood ducks forage in the water and in fields for plants, seeds, insects, acorns, and crustaceans. Males and females are strikingly different, with males having sporting green-blue crests, speckled chestnut breasts, and bold orange-red bill, and multicolored backs and wings, their female counterparts are also crested and mostly brown and grey with iridescent green-purple feathers on their wings. Listen for loud wooo-eeek sounds — those are females; males make a softer ter-weeeee sound. Females lay and incubate their six to 15 eggs — our winter residents who breed down south may have two broods each year while our year-round residents will just have one. Read more at Audubon.