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Archive for January, 2019

It’s nesting time for eagles at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. On Monday I spotted this Bald Eagle couple in a nest that I know has been used the for at least the last two years. The tree is adjacent to one of the main trails at the refuge and is pretty prominent. Shortly after my sighting, I encountered one of the law enforcement officers who was putting up barriers to block access on the roads near the nesting site to protect them from human interference.

Each year they put up the barriers in slightly different locations. I am hoping that this year’s barriers are about the same distance from the nest as last year’s. At that distance, I was able to photograph the eagles from a distance that let me get photos about the same as the first image below and also monitor the eagles. I was fortunately last year to be able to even get some distant shots of the two eaglets after they were born. Perhaps I will be equally lucky this year.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Brown Creepers (Certhia americana) are tough to photograph as they spiral their way up tree trunks, so I was thrilled when I managed to get a mostly unobscured shot of one of these little birds on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

How small are Brown Creepers? According to information on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, Brown Creepers are 4.7 to 5.5 inches in length (12 to 14 cm) and weigh 0.2 to 0.3 ounces (5 to 10 grams). For the sake of comparison, the birds that I featured yesterday, Bald Eagles, are 27.9 to 37.8 inches in length (71 to 96 cm) and weigh 105.8 to 222.2 ounces (3000 to 6300 grams).

Brown Creeper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How willing are you to show others your unedited images? When I first started getting more serious about taking photos six and a half years ago, I used to go out shooting with my mentor Cindy Dyer. When we were finished, we would immediately download my images and she would go through them with me.

It is a very humbling experience to let someone see all of your shots, but in doing so Cindy was able to see what I was attempting to do and how well I was succeeding in things like composition and camera settings. Her view was that I should try to get it as correct as I could in camera and not rely on software to fix my problems.

Earlier today I posted an image of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in a blog posting that I titled Unexpected eagle. In response to the posting, Liz of Exploring Colour asked me how much I had cropped the image. I answered her verbally, but then realized it would be more effective to show her the uncropped image and then the cropped one that I used in this morning’s post.

I was shooting with a Tamron 150-600mm lens at 600mm for this shot and that was what allowed me to fill so much of the frame with the eagle. It is very unusual for me to be able to get that close to an eagle without spooking it. When I am uncertain of the amount of time that I will have with a subject, I will usually use the center focus point of my camera and I think that is what I did here.

My DSLR is getting a bit long in the tooth and doesn’t have as many megapixels as some of the really new ones, which means I can’t crop as severely as some other photographers can without degrading the quality of my images. I have no objections to cropping, though I usually try to keep it as minimal as possible.

Bald Eagle

Uncropped image

bald eagle

Cropped image

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I rounded a curve on a trail yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I looked up and realized there was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) right in front of me. I reacted pretty quickly and managed to capture this image before the eagle spotted me and flew away.

Most of the time when I have been in similar situations, the eagle has spotted me before I spotted him and reacted before I did. In this case, I suspect that the eagle was either distracted or was looking in another direction when I first came into view.

bald eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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With most birds the shape of their heads is a constant, but with Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus), the shape can be wildly variable. I am not really sure how of the bird’s anatomy, but the “hood” appears to be pretty floppy, creating the effect of multiple “hairstyles.” Here are a few of the styles that a male Hooded Merganser was sporting during a brief period last week at a local suburban pond.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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There was a sheet of ice in the center of the pond, but I had no idea how thin it was until a Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) that I was watching fell through the ice. I captured this little series of shots as the gull scrambled to regain its footing. Undeterred by its brief contact with the frigid water, the gull continued its solitary march across the ice, although it did seem to move a bit more slowly and cautiously.

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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How would you dry off after a bath without a towel or a blow dryer? You might have to try the approach of this male Hooded Merganser duck (Lophodytes cucullatus), who rose out of the water and flapped his wings to dry off and fluff his feathers. Afterwards, the little duck spent a considerable amount of time adjusting the feathers with his bill, presumably to maximize their insulation value on a cold winter day.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The blue and gray colors of this male Ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris) seemed to be a perfect match for the cool tones of the icy waters of the suburban pond where I spotted him earlier this week. All of those cool colors also really make the warm yellow of his eyes stand out.

Ring-necked duck

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During the winter, there are fewer wildlife subjects to photograph than at other times of the year, so I find myself paying a lot of attention to each and every one. Earlier this week at a small suburban pond not far from where I live, I spent a lot of time watching a male Hooded Merganser duck (Lophodytes cucullatus) diving for food. “Hooded Merganser” is a long multi-syllabic name, so I affectionately refer to these ducks as “hoodies.”

This duck appeared to be the only member of his species at the pond, so he was not distracted by having to show off for the females. The “hoodie” would swim along and suddenly would dive. Initially I thought that there was no way that I could capture an image mid-dive—his actions seemed too unpredictable.

However, I gradually began to detect a pattern. It was fascinating to see how he would extend his neck, arch his back, and then plunge into the water. So, I watched and waited for him to extend his neck and then would start shooting. Most of the shots were not successful, but I did manage to capture a few fun photos of the diving “hoodie.”

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of my faithful viewers, Jet Eliot, commented on a recent posting that she was glad to get some views of the wildlife refuge where I take so many of my photos. (Jet has a wonderful blog that focuses on travel and wildlife adventures that is definitely worth checking out.) The problem is not that I don’t take shots of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, it is simply that I get so excited about posting photos of the wildlife that I forget about the more static shots of the land and water.

Here are a few shot of the refuge from this past Monday that help give you a better idea of the environment in which I am operating. The first image shows you what part of the shoreline at the refuge looks like during low tide. The refuge is located where Occoquan Bay meets the Potomac River and during tidal surges, some of the shoreline paths are underwater. Those surges tend to bring lots of debris onto the shore, including trash, like the beer bottle that you can see in the photo.

The second shot gives you an idea of how close some of the trees are to the shore. After big storms, downed trees often block some of the paths. As you probably noticed, there was a full moon visible that morning as the sun was rising and adding a little color in the sky.

The final image shows one of the streams that runs through the refuge. It is not unusual to see herons or ducks in these streams and at certain times, when I am really lucky, I have managed to spot muskrats, beavers, and otters.

So that is a brief introduction to “my” wildlife refuge. I used to most of my shooting at another nearby location, Huntley Meadows Park, but it became really popular and crowded. I prefer the solitude of this location—I am overjoyed sometimes when I arrive at the refuge and find that my car is the only one in parking lot.

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I focus my attention so much on photographing living creatures that I feel somewhat helpless when it comes to taking landscape shots. How do you figure out what the main subjects is, assuming that there is a main subject? As a result, I tend to take simplified landscape shots, ones in which lines and shapes take on an almost abstract value.

The absence of color in a cloud-covered sky last Friday rendered the world even more simplified and monochromatic when I took this photograph at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Despite the tire tracks in the snow, I was definitely alone that morning, taking the road less traveled. It was that feeling that I tried to capture with this image.

snowscape

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It was frigid this morning—11 degrees F (minus 12 C) when I first got into my car—and windy, but I was out at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and captured these images as the sun was rising. It was wonderfully tranquil, with the silence broken periodically by the sounds of cracking ice and the creaking trees.

frigid dawn

frigid dawn

frigid dawn

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Even when the weather is bad and other birds are hunkered down, sparrows are invariably active. Most of the time they are at ground level, but occasionally one will perch a bit higher off of the ground and give me a chance to get a decent shot.

That was the case this past Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, when a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) took a break and posed for me briefly on the end of a log. I liked the composition when I took the shot and decided to post it without any cropping. I also couldn’t help noticing as I was working on the image that the sparrow’s colors are almost a perfect match for those in the background.

Sparrows are really special to me too because both on my parents loved His Eye Is On The Sparrow, a hymn that reminds us that God cares for each one of us. That is a message I think we all can use right now, at a time when so many of us are stressed out over the situation in our respective countries and in the world in general.

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I finally made my way out into the wilds of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge for the first time following our recent snowfall. The wildlife refuge is open despite the partial federal government shutdown, but I was pretty sure that the access road had not been plowed, so I waited a few day for road conditions to improve.

It was heavily overcast for much of the day and the wildlife seemed to have hunkered down. Sightings were pretty scarce, so I was really happy when I spotted this duck. It was already a good distance away from me and I think it sensed my presence about the same time as I saw it and started swimming away immediately. I had a pretty good idea that this was a female Common Merganser duck (Mergus merganser) and some friendly folks on a Facebook forum confirmed the identification.

As far as I know, this is the first time that I have spotted this species—I am more used to seeing the Hooded Merganser, whose female sports a similar hairstyle to that of the Common Merganser.

Common Merganser

Common Merganser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Today I decided to feature two of the smallest birds that I spotted in the trees in my neighborhood after our recent snowfall. The first one is a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), a little bird that is in the same family as the chickadee. The second one, I believe, is a House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), a bird that I don’t recall having seen before. I was really drawn to its red coloration and learned from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that the red of a male House Finch comes from pigments contained in its food during molt (birds can’t make bright red or yellow colors directly).

tufted titmouse

housefinch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Female Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) do not stand out as much as their bright red male counterparts, but their beauty is at a minimum comparable, albeit in a more dignified and understated way. The male cardinal is like a loud, raucous call, while the female is more like a soft, seductive whisper.

female Northern Cardinal

female Northern Cardinal

female Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of the cute little birds that I saw in the snow in my neighborhood earlier this week was this Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis). I can’t help but smile at the bird’s pose, which gives the image a really whimsical,almost cartoonish feel.

Dark-eyed Junco

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Many of you know that I love dragonflies. I actively search for them not only in Northern Virginia, where I live, but also on work trips to Belgium and Austria. Liz, a fellow blogger from New Zealand, knows that I suffer from dragonfly withdrawal during the winter and posted this image to help me deal with my symptoms. Be sure to check out the other cool postings on her blog, Exploring Colour and also The Wandering Moa, a blog on hiking in New Zealand that was the source of this image of a really cool dragonfly.

Exploring Colour

dsc03279Click on the photo to enlarge (you may need to click again for full-size). Photo used with permission from The Wandering Moa

Apparently spelt “humongous” for Americans. I admit I’ve got some particular readers in mind as I post this: Mike Powell who photographs dragonflies in Virginia USA and young Benjamin who follows Mike’s blog and with the help of his Gram enthusiastically inspects all the detail of Mike’s photos.

Just two days ago I found a New Zealand blog newly started in early January – The Wandering Moa. Lili published a post about her first alpine tramp (serious hike) and her story included the encounter with this fabulous dragonfly as she was walking through an area of native beech forest. She kindly granted me permission to share the photo. The orange triangle is the standard plastic symbol used to mark walking tracks here. This is one massive dragonfly!

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Images of a bright red cardinal in the brilliant white snow—some might view such shots as a bit cliché, but I view them instead as iconic. I ventured out into my neighborhood earlier this week after the snow had stopped falling and was thrilled to find a small group of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). They spent most of their time buried in the branches, but eventually I was able to capture some unobstructed images of some male cardinals.

Although I like the details of the second shot, the first shot really draws me in by presenting a better depiction of the snowy environment. In some parts of the country this is a typical winter scene, but here in Northern Virginia, this is the biggest snow storm we have had since 2016, so it was pretty unusual to have this kind of photo opportunity.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although I focus mostly on my attention on wildlife in this blog, many of you know that I am likely to take photos of almost anything that catches my eye. Early in the morning this past Saturday as I was scanning the waters off of Occoquan Bay Wildlife Refuge, I caught sight of some lights in the distance. As they grew larger and larger, I realized that it was some sort of ship and I was happy to get a shot of it as it passed by.

A close examination of the image and a quick search on the internet revealed that this is a twin-screw tugboat named the D. Gray Kimel. It was built in 1982 and has had several different names. When I saw it the tugboat did not appear to be assisting another boat, but I did learn that it is rated at 1350 horsepower, so it seems to be pretty powerful.

tugboat D. Gray Kimel

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I love the way that Bufflehead ducks (Bucephala albeola) run across the surface of the water to gain speed before taking off, like this male bufflehead that I spotted last Saturday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The images were already pretty much monochromatic because of the limited light, so I decided to do a black-and-white conversion of them.

If you look closely at the first image, you will see that my camera’s shutter speed was fast enough to freeze the motion of the water, but slow enough that the wings are blurred, which I think enhances the sense of speed. The wing tips are blurred in the second image as well and we also have a really cool reflection of the bufflehead after it has successfully taken to the air.

bufflehead

bufflehead

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Passing by one of the duck blinds in the waters of Occoquan Bay this past Saturday, I saw a larger number of decoys set out and realized it was occupied. Consequently I braced myself when I heard the sound of approaching ducks and sure enough shots rang out. A few seconds later, I saw a duck hit the water not far from where I was standing.

I was focusing on the flailing duck with my telephoto lens when suddenly a dog swam into the frame. The dog, which appears to be a Labrador Retriever, approached the duck, circled around it so it would be heading in the right direction, and then swam back to the blind with the duck in its mouth.

I am not a hunter and prefer to do my shooting with a camera. However, I can appreciate the skill of both the hunter and the retriever in securing the duck that will probably make a tasty meal.

 

retriever

retriever

retriever

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love male Northern Cardinals in the winter. They add such a wonderful pop of bright color on a cloudy day, like yesterday when I took this shot, or on a snowy day like today (when I hope to see one in my neighborhood).

I spotted this Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) while exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my current favorite spot for walking about with my camera. We have already had about 6 inches (10 cm) of snow and more is falling, so I probably will not make it out of the neighborhood today. The streets are not yet clear and people in this area tend to drive even more crazily than normal when there is snow.

I took a number of shots of the cardinal while he was perched in a distant tree. Although he remained relatively stationary, he kept changing his tail position, so I decided to include shots with different “poses.”

Northern cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do eagles kiss? I am not sure if they do, but these two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were definitely beak-to-beak this morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

After a week in the urban confines of Brussels, Belgium, it was nice to get out in the wild again, though I must confess that I was still somewhat jet-lagged. Not long ago I posted a photo of an eagle couple on this same perch and I suspect that this is the same pair. Earlier I had seen another eagle couple near another nesting site. Last year I was thrilled to get a peek at some young eaglets and I am hoping to be able to do the same this year.

kissing eagles

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We won’t see them for a few months in Northern Virginia, but I got a sneak preview of daffodils in bloom here in Brussels, Belgium near a small pond at the botanical gardens yesterday morning.

daffodil

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Finding wildlife to photograph in early January in Brussels, Belgium is pretty tough. There are very few hours of daylight at this time of the year and the skies are mostly covered with gray clouds during the day (when it is not actually raining). During a quick trip to the botanical gardens in Brussels this morning, I spotted a few birds and was able to capture shots of a Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) and a male Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos).

The moorhen was swimming and my camera took the shot at 1/13 of a second, which means that the focus is not super sharp, but I like the soft, impressionist feel of the image. The mallard was more or less stationary as he groomed himself at the edge of the pond, but seemed to be keeping an eye on me.

I am here in Brussels for a brief business trip and as is usually the case on such trips, I like to try to fit in a little wildlife photography, even in the center of a city.

Common Moorhen

mallard

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Thanks to all of you for your overwhelming positive responses to a recent posting Some favorite photos of 2018 that showcased some of last year’s photos that I really like. Check out that posting if you have not seen it yet.

Interesting enough, not a single one of them was from my most-viewed posts of the year. How many views do you regularly get for one of your blog postings? One of my average postings tends to get about 60-80 hits. It is a rare and happy occasion for me to get as many as 100 views for any posting.

Here are links to my five most-viewed postings of 2018 and an indication of how many views they received in 2018 and since they were originally published. You’ll probably notice that four of them were taken in 2013 or earlier. Somehow these postings apparently appear in searches in Google and other search engines and that is how viewers find their way to my blog.

The photos below are ok, but they are certainly not among my favorite or best photos. A review of these statistics reinforces in me the notion that “views” are not a very accurate measuring tool for deciding if a posting or a photo is “good.”

Here is one fun fact about my blog—Red-footed Cannibalfly has been my most-viewed posting for the fourth year in a row. Who knew that so many people were fascinated by this fearsome insect?

Take a look at that posting (or any the others below) by clicking on the highlighted title. Maybe you will be able to discover for me the secret behind their relative popularity.

Red-footed Cannibalfly (31 August 2013) 366 views in 2018 (2457 views since published)

red-footed cannibalfly

Fuzzy white caterpillar (3 August 2013) 341 views in 2018 (1209 views since published)

fuzzy white caterpillar

Blue-eyed garter snake (9 May 2016) 218 views in 2018 (503 views since published)

garter snake

Yellow Garden Orbweaver with a Grasshopper (29 August 2012) 166 views in 2018 (214 views since published)

Insects gone wild (29 May 2013) 125 views in 2018 (901 views since published)

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of the year I tend to see individual Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), but recently I have been seeing them in pairs, like this couple that I spotted last week perched on a nesting platform for ospreys at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It will soon be time to occupy a nearby nest.

If you look closely at the two eagles, you will notice that one that the one on the left is smaller in size—I believe that is the male. I do not know if this is the same couple, but an eagle couple successfully raised two eaglets in a nest in a tree that is not that far away from this platform, which housed an active osprey nest last year.

bald eagles

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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At this time of the year my peaceful pursuit of photos is often punctuated with the sound of shotgun blasts as I walk along the trails parallel to the water at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge—it is duck hunting season. As you might suspect, duck hunting is not permitted on the territory of the wildlife refuge itself, but there is a series of duck blinds not far from the shore.

Some hunters simply take their boats and occupy the blinds, while others take the additional step of putting out duck decoys. In previous years I was fooled into taking photos of the decoys, thinking they were real ducks, but my decoy identification skills seem to have improved.

Here are a couple of photos of one of the blinds to give you an idea of what they look out and how close they are to the shore. I took the final shot of a group of hunters as they slowly motored by me. I don’t know the hunting rules, but I don’t think that they can hunt from a moving boat.

I am not against hunting per se, but I am definitely a bit edgy when I hear shots fired not far from where I am walking and will definitely welcome the eventual end of the hunting season.

duck blind

duck blind

duck hunting

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I’ve read that a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) makes a distinctive cat-like mewing sound, but I don’t recall ever having heard a catbird make any sound whatsoever. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Gray Catbirds can also copy the sounds of other species and string them together to make their own song that can last as long as ten minutes.

Even without hearing its song, I was able to spot this Gray Catbird earlier this week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. As is most often the case with catbirds, this one was in thick vegetation, but I did manage to get a relatively clear shot of its head and body.

Gray Catbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The long sloping shape of the bills of these ducks in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge indicated to me that they are Canvasbacks ducks (Aythya valisineria). Most of the time I rely primarily on colors when trying to identify birds, but during the non-breeding season, many ducks share the same subdued colors, especially when viewed from a distance. This was a rare case when a single distinctive characteristic—in this case the bill—was enough for me to identify the birds with a reasonable degree of confidence.

According to Wikipedia, the duck’s common name is based on early European inhabitants of North America’s assertion that its back was a canvas-like color. In other languages it is just a white-backed duck; for example in French, morillon à dos blanc, or in Spanish, pato lomo blanco.

canvasback

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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