This Column is for the Birds
Article by Elizabeth Karpati in The Arlington Advocate November 2003

            November is Duck Month in Arlington.  The wintering birds which started arriving in October (or earlier ) are still enjoying open water and can usually be seen in their favorite haunts.

Just what is a favorite haunt differs somewhat from one species to the next.  The list of ducks commonly found on Spy Pond overlaps but does not coincide with that for the Reservoir.

Mallards can be found everywhere and in all seasons;  their close relatives, the Black Ducks, are found at the Res in smaller numbers but they don’t frequent Spy Pond.

            Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks are two species which seem to like to hang out together.  They, too, prefer the Res.  The Ring-necks must have been named by someone examining a dead specimen  close up:  from a birdwatcher’s distance there is no visible ring around their necks.  The name would be much more suitable for the Mallards, with the conspicuous white collar around the male’s neck.  Indeed, if they weren’t so common, we would be oohing and aahing about their beautiful coloration.

             At Spy Pond one can see some odd-looking ducks among the Mallards.  Some are black with a white breast spot; others have a diluted shade of the male’s reddish breast color along their sides.  These are hybrids between wild Mallards and some domestic ducks that were living on the pond.  Mallards seem to be unprejudiced when it comes to plumage:  pairs of e.g. a black-and-white and a normal-colored bird have been seen.  Wigeons or “Baldpates” often mingle with Mallards but are more skittish.

             Mergansers are fish-eating ducks, and the fishing must be better in Spy Pond, because it sometimes has fleets of 50 or more Common Mergansers.  Occasionally it even hosts a “Merganser hat trick:”  all three species – Common, Red-Breasted, and Hooded  – visible at the same time.  Mergansers show up at the Res too but usually in smaller groups.

             Green-winged Teals are little ducks that like very shallow water, so they are regulars at the Lexington end of the Res but are seldom seen at Spy Pond. 

             Two species that may be found on both ponds in small numbers are the drab Gadwalls and the colorful Shovelers.  The latter are aptly named:  they hold their unusually long bills at a downward angle, and if they moved around on land the way they move on the water, they would look like little steam shovels busily scooping up dirt.

             Other winter species that show up in hit-or-miss fashion include Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Canvasback, Redhead, Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye, and Bufflehead Every once in a blue moon a Eurasian Wigeon thrills birdwatchers by hobnobbing for a few days with his American cousins before heading home.

             Canvasbacks actually aren’t that rare hereabouts, but you have to go “abroad” (to Cambridge) for a more reliable chance to see them:  in another example of habitat preference, they favor the corner of Fresh Pond near the Concord Avenue rotary.

             “What do you call those funny little black ducks that have come up on my front lawn?”  That’s what some neighbors asked me last winter after the last patch of open water on Spy Pond froze over.  Correction:  American Coots are not ducks, though they swim with ducks;  they are hardy relatives of the more southern gallinules. They normally feed by diving for water weeds, and when Spy Pond no longer offered a place to dive, the hungry birds looked for whatever greenery they could find on land before flying off in search of open water such as a fast-flowing river.

             Until a few winters ago we used to see flocks of 100 to 200 coots on Spy Pond, so that one local birdwatcher referred to it as “Cootsville.”  But then the resident humans got fed up with the rampant weeds, and Town Meeting appropriated money for weed treatment.  Down went the weeds, and down went the coot population, to just a couple dozen.  It seems you can’t have everything.

 This year Spy Pond was still pretty empty of ducks as of the beginning of November, but the Res is well populated.  The Menotomy Bird Club conducts some expertly led bird walks around the Res.  The walks on November 1 and 9 found nine species of ducks (and the total of all species, down to House Sparrows, for November 1 was 43!)  Dates for the remaining walks are Sunday, November 23 and Sunday, December 7, starting at 8 a.m. from the Hurd Field parking lot (off Drake Road), and beginners are welcome.  The club’s website is

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