Winter Waterfowl of the Finger Lakes

Snow geese can be seen flying to and from the open waters of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes to feed on waste grain in farm fields. My favorite location for photographing snow geese is the area west of Seneca Lake and north of Penn Yan. Adult snow geese appear entirely white on land, so they’re more difficult to spot in snow-covered fields. Their black wing tips are more obvious in flight.

Unwilling or unable to handle the rigors of winter, “snowbirds” migrate south when the snow begins to fall. They come in a variety of forms, shapes and sizes. Humans, usually those who are retired, and songbirds, such as orioles and warblers, are examples. Certain waterfowl are an altogether different type of snowbird. They migrate south from the frozen lakes of the north country to rest and feed upon the winter waters of the Finger Lakes. They make no attempt to escape the snow. Although the ice cover on each of the Finger Lakes varies from winter to winter, typically hundreds of thousands of waterfowl can be seen between December and March on the larger, partially frozen Finger Lakes: Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga.

Often confused with snow geese because they are also white, tundra swans are larger than both Canada and snow geese. Tundra swans have a yellow spot between their eyes and bill, which is hard to see at a distance.

Canvasbacks are among the most elegant of ducks. Males have a rusty-red head and neck. Their forehead slopes straight to a long black bill, and their back and sides are pure white. Canvasbacks are wary ducks and often raft well away from shore.

Ring-necked ducks, known for their ability to dive to depths of 40 feet, look rather distinguished with their glossy black-to-purple heads and a white ring on their bluish, black-tipped bill. They are named ring-necks because of the cinnamon ring at the base of their neck, but it is difficult to spot.

Similar to canvasbacks, male redhead ducks also have rusty-red heads, but their heads are rounded. In sunlight you will notice their vivid golden eye. Their sides and backs are smoky gray compared to the white color on

Hooded mergansers are fast and agile underwater. This male has captured and is about to swallow a small pickerel. Hooded mergansers display stunning color in good light. The chestnut-colored sides, two black bars on a white chest, and a black head with a white fan crest are distinctive markings.

Swimming with two male American wigeon is a common goldeneye. They indeed have golden eyes that stand out on their black-to-glossy green heads. Another distinctive marking on goldeneyes is the white oval between the eye and bill. American wigeon sport a green stripe behind the eye, rufus-colored sides, and a white forehead and crown, hence their nickname “baldpate.”

As winter conditions become more frigid and there are fewer openings in the ice, it is not unusual to see large flocks of mixed waterfowl. How many different species can you identify in this photo?

Mallards remain in the Finger Lakes year-round and are the most recognized of our ducks. Drakes, the males, have metallic-green heads, white neck rings and bright orange legs and feet.

With most ducks the colors of males and females are distinctively different. Female lesser scaup are dark brown with a white ring at the base of the bill, while males have black heads with a purple-to-green gloss, black breast and neck, and gray-to-white on the back and sides.

by Bill Banaszewski

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