In Love With Dutch Gap (part 1)
January 11th, 2018
Michael and I spent a week in Virginia this Christmas, sharing the holidays
with my parents. And I managed three outings to Dutch Gap, each of them
wonderful in its own way.
Dutch Gap is a conservation area on the James River and one of my favorite
places in the world. A rather superlative statement, I know, especially for
someone who has birded Costa Rica, but Dutch Gap is special to me. In summer,
it's about the beautiful Prothonotary Warblers, brilliant golden birds who
nest in tree holes in wooded swamps. At Dutch Gap they nest in bird boxes
built especially for them, erected six feet or so above the water. You seem to
hear their song around every corner. And they are easy to see, at least until
you take your camera out.
But this time of year it's about the ducks. A diverse and abundant assortment
of them winter in the marshes of Dutch Gap, viewable right from the roadside.
They can sometimes become quite tame. My high counts this trip included, among
others, 40 American Wigeons, 100 Gadwall, 10 Northern Pintails, 40 Northern
Shovelers, and a whopping 160 Wood Ducks. (Those counts are all loose but
conservative, based on what I could see with binoculars and spotting scope
from the various overlooks. There were doubtless more!)
I guess ducks are some of my favorite birds. They have such character about
them. The gentle Gadwalls, the stern yet comical Ring-Necked Ducks, the
ungainly Shovelers. And for the first time I was able to capture them well. I
fell in love anew with each species as I was processing their photos.
My first outing, on the 23rd with Michael, had me in a sorry state. I was worn
out from travel and having difficulty adjusting to being away from home. But
the marshes lifted my spirits.
A Northern Shoveler dabbles for food with his oversized bill, while another
tips up. There were dozens of them swimming close in that day.
Northern Shovelers have comb-like structures called lamellae on the edges of
their oversized bills. As they dip their bills in the water, the lamellae
strain out tiny crustaceans and other food items.
I noticed a few of them doing something I'd never seen them do before. Two
ducks would slowly spin together while dabbling, creating a gentle vortex with
them at its center. It was reminiscent of what phalaropes do
likely for the same purpose (to draw food items up to the surface), but the
shovelers preferred to do it in pairs. Visually they reminded me of a yin
Note the vortex around this fellow. I think this is one who was spinning by
The other stars of the day were the Ring-Necked Ducks. These diving ducks like
shallower water than their relatives, and often hang out with dabblers in
marshes and ponds, while the more dedicated divers keep to rivers, lakes and
ocean bays. I had struggled to do the shovelers justice in the overcast
lighting that day, but for the ring-neckeds it was no problem at all. They're
(If you're wondering why these ducks are called "Ring-Necked" and not
"Ring-Billed", you're not the first. They do have a very subtle chestnut ring
around their necks, visible at close range--as in, to someone who is holding a
specimen in their hands. It is seldom seen by the rest of us.)
Dutch Gap in winter also features American Coots. I think of them as "honorary
ducks" since they usually act like ducks and associate with ducks, but their
chickenlike bills give them away as oddballs. They're actually part of Rallidae
, the Rail
family. Most of their relatives do more walking than swimming.
And in the "boring birds doing interesting things" category, this pair of
Ring-Billed Gulls. I couldn't decide at first whether what they were up to was
amorous or aggressive. (Final verdict: aggressive.)