By Keith Michael
There he is: the Redhead!
I don’t know why this duck is just called a Redhead, not a Red-headed Duck. However, the fact that it is a duck with a red head could not be more obvious. I’m a little late to the party for my pilgrimage to The Pool in Central Park to see this new attraction. By the time I got there, this shimmering, glowing star in the New York City avian firmament had already been turning heads for a week, beginning along Battery Park City, but he has now become a regular here at 103rd Street. This is a species of duck that only shows up in the winter. Redheads are annual visitors to Baisley Pond out in Queens, and occasionally, to other locations around the boroughs, but this is the first one that Manhattan has seen in a long time. All the bells and whistles, and long camera lenses, have come out to welcome him.
Nearly 30 species of ducks appear regularly around New York City throughout the year. Because we have water, water everywhere, and 520 miles of coastline, we’re more than likely to catch glimpses of many of them—yes, with a little effort. I would wager that to most people “a duck is a duck is a duck.” The idea that there are many different kinds of ducks might be news to them.
Honestly, to learn how to tell most ducks apart, it’s best to start with the males. Since the majority of ducks nest on the ground and the females do most of the sitting on the eggs, the gals’ plumages have evolved into complex camouflage patterns to evade predators, including well-meaning would-be duck identification mavens. The “ur-duck” for most of the world is our humble, handsome green-headed Mallard. At this time of the year the males are looking feistily, iridescently fetching as they compete with their bros for the attention of their one and only Lady Mallard. The hens’ new breeding feathers look fresh and crisp as well with that shocking blue pane on their wings like a glimpse of a forbidden petticoat. Other than our lone Redhead, all the other ducks at The Pool right now are Mallards. Green heads. Red head. Easy. Let’s walk down to the Reservoir to see if there are any other varieties of ducks to ogle.
After a brisk ten blocks jaunt, the north end of the Reservoir is remarkably populated with an intriguing duck called the Northern Shoveler. Also gifted with a green head, from there the similarity to a Mallard ends, as their bodies explode in a parti-colored harlequinade of white and russet. As well as their namesake over-sized shovel-shaped bills, a distinctive identifying behavior is their communal feeding style: gathering in circling rafts of dozens of individuals creating a vortex which draws tasty nibblets into their reach.
I don’t want to give short shrift to a few more common Black Duck and Gadwall pairs foraging along the edges. Black Ducks are a luscious dark mocha brown. Gadwall males have a distinctive black butt and kaleidoscopic swirls of brown feather patterns on the rest of their bodies. (Gadwalls are my favorite ducks because of these elaborate subtleties. Shhh.) Disappearing into the morning mist over the water, a flotilla of snoozing Ruddy Ducks is the next spectacle. Unlike the crammed-into-a-bar-on-a-Saturday-night camaraderie of the Shovelers, the diminutive Ruddies are evenly spaced out like checkers on a board. With heads tucked in, one doesn’t get the full impression of bathtub rubber duckies like their swimming silhouettes usually suggest with their pert upturned tails. Here and there, a few males are preening and their seemingly plastic blue bills can be seen dodging in and out of the namesake ruddy-colored feathers on their backs.
Gliding through the Ruddy Ducks like tall ships in full sail, a pair of Hooded Mergansers seem oblivious to the bobbing slalom course around them. The male has a spectacular sideways flattened black and white crest that makes his head look enormous while the female, a few paddles behind, is a delectable toffee brown. Unlike the dabbling ducks we’ve seen so far, Mergansers are diving ducks. Bloop, down they go, diving under the surface with barely a ripple. It takes patience to scan where they will pop up next. Oh, there they are! Thirty feet away. The female was lucky and caught a tasty red crayfish!
At the south end of the Reservoir, I don’t see the baroque extravagance of the resident Wood Duck and his Mallard hen paramour today (a situation-ship to be sure) though buoyant black and white Buffleheads and be-bopping American Coots with their over-sized leaf-like feet are giving a show. I’ll have to come back another time to continue viewing the passing duck parade of 2023.