Last weekend a friend and I went for an afternoon walk at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. It was a beautiful day, clear and relatively warm for November. The parking lot was full, and there were many family groups. It was good to see so many youngsters out in our natural world.
Waterfowl species are arriving at Nisqually now, on their way to their wintering grounds, and the most impressive of them last week were the Cackling Geese. These geese look like small Canada Geese (you know what that looks like); previously, they were considered a sub-group of that species. Now ornithologists recognize them as a distinct species, Branta hutchinsii. They are larger than all the ducks but smaller and somewhat darker than the typical Canada Goose, with a noticeably shorter neck. Both sexes look alike, as with all geese. But the key distinction is their distinctive vocalization, their cackle, if you will. Sometimes there are cackling and Canada geese in a mixed flock, readily allowing vocal comparison. You can listen to these and other bird vocalizations by downloading the Merlin app by clicking here.
There must have been 10,000 or more Cackling Geese at Nisqually last weekend. Most are transiting to wintering areas further south, but a good portion remain here for the winter. When you visit Nisqually, and I hope you soon will, you cannot help but see them. They are grazing on the newly green grass widely available at the refuge. When startled, perhaps by a marauding Bald Eagle, they leap up en masse with a loud flurry of wingbeats, circling around with their loud cackling (not honking, like a Canada Goose).
As you walk along the trails and boardwalks, you will also inevitably encounter Mallards. These are the ducks you think of as a city park duck since they can become quite tame. They were also one of the species sources of domestic ducks, and sometimes they will crossbreed with domestic escapees. Autumn is an especially good season to appreciate the Mallard’s beauty since they have just completed molting new feathers. They are large ducks, larger than a crow but smaller than a cackling goose.
Male Mallards have a striking iridescent green head, bright yellow bill, and bold white neck ring. Their bodies are grey with a brown breast and black rear with white outer tail feathers. The females are much duller, with scalloped brownish plumage and a two-tone yellow and black bill. These ducks are so common that sometimes we ignore or overlook them. If you have a chance, take a closer look – they are quite beautiful!
Mallards and some other duck species are dabbling ducks, meaning that they feed from the surface vegetation of ponds and wetlands, at times tipping up but seldom diving. At Nisqually, we saw Mallards in several places feeding on “duckweed,” those mat-forming small green plants that grow on the water’s surface.
There is another dabbling duck that is seen commonly at Nisqually, the Northern Pintail. There is one certain way to identify this species – their tail feathers end in a point. These ducks are similar in size and behavior to a mallard but with longer necks. They dabble at the water surface, filtering out seeds, insects, and other food. They also tip up to feed, and when they do this, their skyward-pointing pintail is very distinctive.
Like most duck species, the male pintail is much more colorful than the female. The male’s head and neck are a rich chocolate brown, with a shiny black bill. They have a contrasting white breast with a white line connecting down the side of the neck. Their bodies are grey and black with a white rear. An altogether handsome duck. Females are scalloped light brown with the head, sometimes a lighter tan. Females also have a long neck and black bill.
Fall and winter are great times to visit the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The roads and boardwalks take you right out to the waterfowl, and, with binoculars, you can really see these birds up close. And there are loaner binoculars available at the visitors’ center. With any luck, you will experience that rush of excitement when thousands of Cackling Geese fly up in unison, nosily circle overhead, and then touch down again on the bright green grass and fold their wings.
George Walter is environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at george@theJOLTnews.com
Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.