Winter Waterfowl Mating

Winter Waterfowl Mating

Janice Lloyd


Think the only reason ducks head to Northern Virginia for the winter is to find good food sources? Think again.

That’s the advice of Larry Cartwright, leader of the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia’s Winter Waterfowl Count. Unlike songbirds, which typically bond, breed  and nest on summer grounds, many waterfowl species are trying to find mates during the winter.  Courtship is in full swing.

“You’ll think it’s cold and spring is far away, but these birds know spring is on the way,” Cartwright said.

“When we went out this year, we saw it more than ever. “

During the weekend count of Feb. 6-7,  he said some of the male displays were “hilarious and entertaining.”

For example, at Mason Neck, six drake common mergansers set their sights on one hen. The males chased each other, sometimes bumped each other and vigorously bobbed their heads. It looks like they’re going to “break their necks’’ he said.

 Did it pay off for them?

“They surrounded this one hen, and she was clearly not interested,’’ he said.  “It’s almost like she saw their behavior and was saying ‘You guys are nuts.’ ”

Another time at Leesylvania State Park, two drake goldeneyes gave the hen the wrong message.  He’ll never forget what he saw and heard.

“They swam past the female, swung their heads back and forth and banged heads. You could hear the crack when their heads hit. One was swimming around in circles afterwards shaking his head like he knocked something loose.

“You could almost imagine the female saying “neither of you idiots is going to be the father of my kids.’’

She swam away, he said, all by herself.

“The females often aren’t ready until later,’’ he added.

That means there’s plenty of wooing to watch during the winter. He welcomes newcomers next year. In the meantime, he recommends these places to observe waterfowl before they head off to nest in north:  Riverbend Park, Dyke Marsh, Belmont Bay, Mason Neck and Quantico.