Thursday, May 7, 2009

Masked Ducks at Alligator Pond

Alligator Pond, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. This tiny wetland, at perhaps two acres, comprises a minute fraction of the sprawling 45,000 acre refuge. The pond proves the old adage, add water and they will come. It was teeming with birds, including Least Grebe, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Common Moorhen, Blue-winged Teal, Tricolored Heron, American Coot, and more.

Of course, the pond’s namesake was lurking about. This big ‘gator was peering around, no doubt eyeing all of the potential snacks swimming about. If you are a water bird in such places, it pays to be on your toes at all times. More than one duck or grebe has undoubtedly swum right into the gaping maw of a giant alligator here.

The refuge staff was good enough to install a “gator gate”; a gap in the fence that allows the reptilian beasts to easily pass from the pond to the nearby lake. That beaten down path was created by roaming alligators.

Three clown-like Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks sit atop a nesting box, probably pondering how they might all fit in. This southern species is abundant in South Texas, but doesn’t normally range much further north. Formerly known as the “Black-bellied Tree Duck”, they nest in cavities and are often seen perching in trees.

We spotted our main target almost immediately – Masked Duck! These tropical relatives of the familiar Ruddy Duck are rare visitors to the southernmost U.S., occurring most frequently in South Texas. They have bred rarely, but most records are of non-breeders. I had sought this species in previous trips to this area, with no luck, so needless to say I was delighted to finally encounter this little stifftail.

Better yet, two Masked Ducks are present, and it didn’t take long for the other to show. These are females, with distinctive proportionately massive bills and striped heads. They aren’t much more than a foot in length and weigh less than a pound.

To me, these Lilliputian fowl were the crown jewels on a brief bird-filled two day foray in South Texas. But, I did see most of the other regional specialties, some of which are far gaudier than female Masked Ducks. I’ll share some of those other species soon.

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