By Russ Chappell
Northern shovelers are dabbling ducks that feed in shallow water, by skimming the surface or by tipping headfirst into the water to graze on tiny aquatic plants, vegetation, larvae, and insects. Common in our area during the winter, shovelers often gather in small groups. Recently, 200 were reported at Watson Lake, and 50 at Willow Lake. Larger than a coot and smaller than a mallard, they can weigh up to 29 pounds with wingspans as great as 33 inches. Their long, shovel-shaped bills, about 2 1⁄2 inch in length, are equipped with over 100 outcroppings called lamellae to filter out tiny crustaceans, vertebrae and seeds as they forage.
The male displays a bright white chest, rusty sides, and a green head, and the female a giant orange bill and speckled brown plumage. In flight, males flash blue on the upper wing and green on their secondaries (the speculum). A quiet species, the male making a clunking call, and the female a mallard-like quack. Bolder than many ducks, shovelers often venture close to shore, allowing for easy identification without binoculars or scopes.
They are monogamous, bonding on wintering grounds and remaining together until fall migration. After breeding and before migration, males group together in small flocks during a flightless molting period, during which they are inclined to stay hidden in vegetation, especially at night.
Nests are small depressions on the ground, in short vegetation within 150 feet of water. The female shapes the nest to her body, usually surrounding it on at least three sides with vegetation and lining it with downy feathers. There is one clutch of 8-12 eggs yearly, which incubates in 22-25 days. The new hatchlings are covered in down and able to swim and walk.
Paddling through our wetlands, swinging their bills from side to side to filter out their tiny crustacean prey. Northern shovelers are currently in our area, and they are considered a species of low conservation concern.
Visit one of our lakes to view this unique species, it will certainly be memorable and make your day!
The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check them out online at PrescottAudubon.Org. IMAGES: By John West, Lake Havasu City, AZ which is approved for publication.