Most birds fly south in winter. That’s a simple fact many of us are taught at a young age.
But, you see, “south” is a relative term. For many species of waterfowl, Wisconsin is about as south as their migratory journey reaches. After all, each winter odyssey has a different starting point and migration is a two-way street. While many of our familiar species leave the Midwest during colder months, new, less familiar ones also arrive.
If you want an example of this, all you have to do is grab your binoculars and head to the largest section of open water you can find during the winter months. I’m willing to bet you will be amazed by the sights that are likely to greet you.
Plain and simple, winter is the best time to watch ducks in Wisconsin.
Why? Well, there are a few reasons.
The first has to do with the aforementioned phenomenon of migration.
As winter sets in, flocks of puddle ducks such as mallards, wood ducks, and teal give way to rafts of diving species like goldeneyes, buffleheads, scaup, as well as several varieties of mergansers — each more beautiful than the next.
Divers aren’t as recognizable to most people in our state, including many hunters like myself, because for many reasons, they just aren’t all that accessible most of they year. That’s part of the intrigue. These relatively common, but seldom seen birds, are built differently and have unique communication styles and behaviors.
You can see bountiful displays of all of this during our coldest months and it doesn’t require loads of time and effort.
The second reason is the plummeting temperatures that consolidate available water and food. Think about it. Those are two required elements for the survival of any living thing. If you can find open water, the ducks that are around will almost have to pay a visit at some point. This can bring species that typically spend their time in the middle of large bodies of water closer to shore or even many miles inland, offering some great viewing opportunities.
This pair of factors bring about the third reason that makes winter the ultimate time to watch ducks in the Badger State: the increased odds of seeing something truly special.
Now I know better than to promise anything but, when migrating birds congregate, there is always a chance of encountering a breath-taking straggler.
Recently, a mandarin duck, native to eastern Asia, made headlines after it was spotted fraternizing with more-expected species in Milwaukee.
In the last week, I personally have come across several long-tailed ducks as well as a trio of harlequin ducks — species that were well outside their native ranges.
Long-tailed ducks breed in the high-arctic and can dive deeper than any other duck in world, sometimes staying underwater for up to four minutes.
Harlequins are straight-up ocean ducks native to northern Canada that prefer rough water and, because of this, suffer more broken bones on average than any other duck species. As the name suggests, adult harlequins provide spectacular displays of color and are flying, swimming pieces of art.
These are the types of potential treasures awaiting those who take the time to seek them out.
Whether you are a hunter, bird-watcher, or simply someone looking to spend more time outside when the days are short, winter duck-watching is an excellent way to learn about the natural world through observation.
Ready to get started? Here are a few tips:
Key-in on open water
Could you catch a glimpse at some cool ducks streaking through the sky if you are in the right place? Sure. But the views get so much better if you can find these ducks on the water.
Open water is vital to consistently finding ducks in winter. For divers, not only does water serve as safety and hydration, it’s also home to their food sources. That makes water a slam dunk.
Binoculars are a must
You don’t have to use the most expensive glass money can buy. But it is impossible to get the full experience without binoculars of some kind.
While these birds are much closer to shore than they generally are at other times of year, I will promise you that many of them will still be well out of the range of the naked eye. Even if a raft numbers in the thousands, the ducks that comprise it will look like little more than bobbing dots outside of 30 yards or so.
Bring a field guide of some kind
Birding, of any kind, is so much more fun when you can figure out what the hell you’re actually looking at.
If, like most people, you aren’t very familiar with diving ducks, it can be difficult to nail down the solid identification of moving targets at first. A hardcopy field guide or app, such as Merlin, will help you fully embrace the fun of learning new things and will greatly accelerate the process of becoming acclimated.
If you find open water, locating ducks shouldn’t take much time. But picking out the special ones will.
Divers require patience. Just when you think you’re about to get a good look at one, bloop, they disappear under the water’s surface to grab a snack, only to come back up yards from where you last saw them.
Scan from right-to-left with your binoculars. This helps break the familiar pattern of processing information that our brains use for reading. This makes you more likely to keep the level of focus needed to spot the outliers.
Finding the beautiful stranger in the flock can be something of a time investment. For example, the first long-tailed duck I spotted a few days ago was just a single specimen among thousands of other ducks on the water. That doesn’t even take into account the geese and seagulls.
Keep looking. Sooner or later, with enough persistence, you’ll find something to brag about.