Monday, December 26, 2011

The Bountifully-billed Dabbler: A Northern Shoveler at Brazos Bend

My Christmas Eve’s eve daytrip to Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) provided wonderful birding and photography opportunities, and I plan to blog post a few of the photographs this coming week.
One of my most exciting observations for the day was a close-up viewing of a small group of female (and immature) Northern Shovelers.  Like most species of ducks, geese, and swans (Family Anatidae), Shovelers are shy of human observation.  Time and time again I’ve come upon these ducks on marshy ponds or lakes, and watched their sly but quick movement towards the opposite shoreline. I stand and watch with limited viewing of their backsides, as their heads are pointed away, gracefully swimming in any direction away from my stance.  Side views are only granted when their large personal space requirements are fulfilled, with significant surface water between their position and my binoculars or camera.  I can’t really hold this common, antisocial behavior (with respect to humans) against any of the Anatidae species.  I too have an infamous reputation for needing a significant personal space.  In crowded conditions, whether friendly or unknown, the rick-man has noted that I tend towards a sly but quick movement to the least-crowded edge of any given gathering of humans.
But this past Friday, I was delighted to see these shy beauties in the marshy wetland, quite close to the trail between the BBSP observation platform and Elm Lake.  With no other humans in the area, they were within 15 yards of the trail’s edge.  I was able to stealthily approach and hide behind brushy undergrowth for a close-up viewing of these bountifully-billed beauties:

Northern Shovelers are a member of the Subfamily Anatinae, and within this Subfamily, a member of the Anatini Tribe.  This tribal grouping is commonly described, by both birders and hunters, as the Dabbling Ducks.  These surface-feeding ducks “dabble” on the surface of the water, straining aquatic invertebrates through their specialized bills.  It is not uncommon to see dabbling ducks “upended” with “rear ends” pointed to the sky and heads just under water, feeding near surface level.  Just for fun I thought I’d include this picture that I captured in January 2006 at BBSP, showing three Blue-winged Teals (Anatini cousins of the Shoveler) in, ahem, the somewhat undignified but famous dabbling duck “up-end” feeding position:

 However, Shovelers are a bit too dignified for this behavior, and rarely tip up in this manner.  Rather, Mother Nature has especially outfitted Northern Shovelers with the best-known bill of the Anatini Tribe, a spatula-like instrument for filtering mud and water, straining both for aquatic invertebrates of various sizes. 
I think you would agree, especially with my rare close-up, and direct head-on viewing, that Northern Shovelers are “graced” with an exquisite “snout”:

And if you didn't "click on" the above photo for full-size bill viewing, you may miss why this bountifully-billed beauty is one of my favorites!


  1. I love these pictures! Mary

  2. I'm surprised that their bill has such a trumpet shape. Guess I've never looked that closely at a head-on shoveler. Great photograph!


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