All winter long, the numbers of ring-necked ducks on a lake on Coffee Road in Bedford County had been increasing.
Michael and I were surprised that we consistently saw 40 to 50 of these lovely ducks, but then, on March 9, I counted 192, perhaps a record here.
They shared the lake with at least one lesser scaup, a handful of hooded mergansers, and a few mallards, Canada geese and wood ducks.
Last week, the ring-necked ducks were gone, as if they knew the vernal equinox was upon them, and it was time to head to their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern U.S.
I wondered what had attracted them in such numbers. Was the lake more full of plant life than usual? It remained a muddy brown most of the winter so it was impossible to tell.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America, these birds have historically gathered in small numbers of 10 to 40 to winter over on inland lakes and ponds, but they have recently become more concentrated with flocks of up to 500.
The article speculates that habitat changes may be responsible, but it didn’t indicate why. I can only guess that as waterfowl habitat shrinks, birds are forced to gather in larger numbers anywhere they find food.
The ring-necked duck is a small to medium-sized diving duck with a distinctive white ring around its bill and a short crest that gives its head a sloping profile.
Males are a little bit bigger than females. The male has a white ring near the tip of its gray bill, a shiny black head and back, a white line on the wings, a white breast and bright yellow eyes.
The adult female has a grayish brown head and body with a dark brown back, a dark bill with a more subtle light ring than the male, grayish-blue feet and brown eyes with white rings around them.
The species is native to North America and generally nests in subarctic deltas, taiga, boreal forest, aspen parkland and even prairie regions. Its breeding range expanded east of the Great Lakes beginning in the 1930s and westward into Alaska and Yukon Territory during the 1980s, and its population has been holding steady.
Ring-necked ducks winter inland along the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic coasts of the U.S.
During both summer and winter, ring-necked ducks prefer shallow, freshwater wetlands with stable water levels and abundant emergent and submerged or floating plants.
These birds are omnivores and feed mainly by diving or dabbling at the surface. Ducklings are dependent on animals such as insects, earthworms, leeches and snails. As they mature they change their diet to submerged plants such as pondweed and annual wild rice, but still like escargot.
Because they are less picky eaters than other waterfowl, they are more likely to colonize new areas, including those that are generally less productive.
Whatever the reason, it was a treat to see these stately ducks in such large numbers.