by William McReynolds
Winter holds its own special avian delights in and around our local wetlands: lakes, ponds, flooded fields and estuaries. At Mirror Lake in Highlands, for instance, you can often spot any number of Wood Ducks, Black Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser and Mallards.
Nearby Lake Junaluska, which offers both scenic vistas and a slightly warmer climate than the lakes and ponds on the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau, plays winter host to Ruddy Ducks, Gadwalls, American Widgeon and Osprey.
These birds sport surprising colors and headgear. They are also much larger than most perching birds due in part to the amount of body fat they carry to get them through lean winter days. Spotting them from water’s edge is easy this time of the year and, with a good pair of binoculars, you can even ogle them for the warmth and comfort of your car.
Canada Geese, pictured left, are common in our area on lakes and golf courses. They are almost always seen in flocks at ground level or in characteristic high flying V formations. Within their flocks they are highly social and hierarchically organized. The Canadas’ loud honks often announce their departures and arrivals.
Mallards are also numerous in the winter. The Mallard is the ancestor of practically all domestic ducks. They are monogamous and usually pair in the fall but can be observed courting and pair-bonding in the winter months as well. Strong fliers, they can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. Only female Mallards quack; males emit a much quieter, raspy sound. Their diet, like that of Canada Geese, is varied depending on the season and includes seeds, aquatic vegetation, insects and grain.
Our winter waterfowl attest to the tenacity and robustness of life. In spite of this, their numbers are decreasing due largely to loss of habitat which is itself tied to changes in atmospheric temperature and human land use. We conserve our colorful waterfowl and the balances of nature by protecting and conserving the natural wetlands in our area.
The mission of the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society is to provide opportunities to enjoy and learn about birds and other wildlife and to promote conservation and restoration of the habitats that support them. HPAS is a 501 (c)(3) organization. Visit website at highlandsaudubonsociety.org for information on membership and all activities.