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Winter ducks in western N.C.

Every winter brings in migrating waterfowl from the north. As the icy winds of the Alberta Clippers blow in, the swans, geese and ducks should not be far behind, and small numbers of these distinctive birds remain with us throughout most of the winter months.

Although the number of waterfowl in the mountains and foothills of the Carolinas cannot compare with the vast flocks along the East Coast, we still manage to attract a reasonable selection of birds on some of the larger rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Here, if the water remains open throughout the colder months, we can expect small flocks of geese and ducks on many stretches of water.

Of the 35 or so North American species, we can expect to see at least 15 in the mountains during the winter months. Of course, the familiar Mallard is the most common, and every small patch of water has its resident flock of these wild, but more often feral, ducks.

Of the ducks that visit the mountains during the winter months, the Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser and Ring-necked Duck are perhaps the most common. All three are diving ducks that feed on aquatic invertebrates, although the Ring-neck prefers a more vegetarian diet and the Hooded Merganser also feeds heavily on small fish. They all occur on ponds and lakes throughout the mountains and foothills, and often occur in urban and built up areas.

Aside from the three aforementioned ducks, there are several other species that are often seen. These include the beautiful Wood Duck, the very drab Gadwall, and the Ring-Necked duck look-alike Lesser Scaup.&bsp; Red-Breasted Mergansers also pass through during migration and rarely some may winter, and there is always the chance of a rarity that is off-course from its normal migration pattern. Over the past few winters these have included Surf Scoter, Common Merganser and Long-tailed Duck, the latter previously known as Oldsquaw.

Ducks exhibit a wide range of feeding habits and habitat preferences, but even with the lack of natural lakes in the mountains, we still manage to attract a good number of species and individuals. Some prefer deep water, while others prefer shallow feeding areas. Some occur in pairs and small flocks, and others find security in larger numbers. Some remain on the same stretch of water throughout the winter, but others roam from one body of water to another, appearing and reappearing at irregular intervals. That is the beauty of looking for waterfowl during the winter months. There is always the surprise of not knowing what will appear on a lake on any given day.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. WWW.birdventures.com.

If you have birding questions, please drop me an e-mail at the above site.~ Birdbox written by Simon Thompson