Red Clay Creek

All posts tagged Red Clay Creek

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

What type of creature created this series of splashes on the surface of the Red Clay Creek? Image by Derek Stoner, March 2, 2012.

Not only have Wood Ducks provided an interesting show along the Red Clay Creek recently, but there is also another display being made by waterfowl visiting the Red Clay Valley.

Male and female Common Mergansers are paired up and fishing together, fattening up on fish to fuel their migration north to the Boreal Forest.  These large ducks will soon return to nest in the North Woods, where the females select nest cavities in hollow trees in the same fashion as Wood Ducks. 
After a recent encounter where my camera was ready and the road behind me was quiet,  the photo above shows the result: the series of splashes these birds left on the water’s surface as they flew away.

A pair of Common Mergansers (female left, male right) makes a running take-off from the Red Clay Creek. Image by Derek Stoner, March 2, 2012.

Because mergansers spend so much time in pursuit of finned prey, they have feet that are mounted closer to their tail than the average duck,  in order to maximize propulsion while  underwater.   Like feathered skin divers, these birds chase after native fish like Black-nosed Dace, Creek Chubs, and Satinfin Shiners in the Red Clay Creek.  When mergansers decide to fly, they take a “running start” across the water and use their narrow wings to help them to slowly launch from the water. 

Keep an eye out on local waterways these next couple weeks for the colorful Common Merganser: a unique tree-nesting, fish-eating duck of the Far North!

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

A handsome drake Wood Duck in a vernal pool along Red Clay Creek, following his female companion (tail visible at right edge). Image by Derek Stoner, March 2, 2012.

There may be plenty of room to debate what bird wears the crown of “Most Beautiful” but I think a lot of voters would happily cast their ballot in favor of the Wood Duck.  When these ducks arrive from their wintering grounds in the Deep South they are a most welcome reminder that the seasons are changing.   Known by a nickname of “Summer Duck,”  Wood Ducks are a symbol of the warm season that follows their return.

Today I chanced upon a beautiful drake Wood Duck and his mate as they explored a vernal pool along Route 82 just up the Red Clay Creek from Ashland Nature Center.  Amidst a setting of freshly-emerged Skunk Cabbage and last fall’s brown leaves, the drake’s plumage exhibited every remaining hue of the color spectrum.  

The Wood Duck hen’s mottled brown plumage disguises her in woodland and stream settings alike. Image by Derek Stoner, March 2, 2012.

After the Wood Duck pair flew from their roadside puddle, I noted that the water contained multiple Wood Frog egg masses.  Chances are good that these ducks took advantage of these eggs as an easy source of protein, to supplement their favored diet of acorns, grass seeds, and aquatic vegetation. 

Watch for Wood Ducks right now as they begin to arrive on our local streams and marshes.  Soon they will be investigating nest boxes and preparing for another “Summer Duck” season of raising young!

 By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator
Common Merganser drake on Red Clay Creek

A handsome drake Common Merganser cruises down the Red Clay Creek near Ashland Nature Center. Image by Derek Stoner.

The local creeks are losing their coverings of ice as winter loses its solid grip on the landscape.  Wildlife quickly takes advantage of the open water and we often observe new animal activity along these waterways.  In February and March, this brings in the mergansers! 

I observed and photographed several groups of mergansers in the Red Clay Creek recently, along Route 82 just upstream from Ashland Nature Center.  Good places to look for them are in the slow, deep stretches of water above the dams at Sharpless Road and the end of Snuff Mill Road.

Common Merganser hen on Red Clay Creek

A hen Common Merganser shows off her shaggy orange crest. Image by Derek Stoner.

Mergansers are a tribe of ducks that specialize in eating fish.   The Red Clay Creek and other streams in the Piedmont region are home to a diverse array of native fish that appeal to fish-eaters like mergansers.  Chubs, dace, darters, and minnows of many varieties may be found in the waters.  The fast-swimming mergansers chase the fish underwater, sometimes teaming up to corral the fish and attack from different directions.  The thin, serrated beak of the merganser allows it to grasp the slippery fish before it is turned and swallowed head first down the throat of the hungry duck. 

Hooded Merganser drake on the Red Clay Creek

A drake Hooded Merganser displays his sleek black and white crest. Image by Derek Stoner.

The drake Hooded Merganser’s piercing yellow eyes stare out from a black head accented with a large wedge of white.   The chest is white with a wedge of black, making for a stark contrast of coloration.  When excited and in the presence of females, the drake raises his crest fully in a wide fan shape.  

Hooded Merganser hens on the Red Clay Creek.

A pair of Hooded Merganser hens drift along with crests raised. Image by Derek Stoner.

Hen Hooded Mergansers have a beautiful cinnamon-colored crest that when raised looks like a punk rocker’s mohawk hair.   In just a couple of months, these hens will be seeking out nesting cavities (hollows in trees) where they will lay their eggs.  Hooded Mergansers have been documented nesting a few times in Delaware, but generally they are a species that breeds further north in the Northeast and Canada. 

There is one other species of merganser that occurs in Delaware: the Red-breasted Merganser . This species occurs in winter along Delaware’s coastal areas, typically preferring salt and brackish water.

If you’d like to see all three species of mergansers and at least 25 species of waterfowl in one day, join us for the Delaware Duck Day program on Sunday, March 13. We’ll travel the state in search of web-footed birds and enjoy the great diversity of ducks, geese, and swans that winter in the First State.