Delmarva’s Wintering Waterfowl

by Jim Rapp

Jim Rapp talks about Delmarva's winter ducks, geese and swans.

Birdwatchers and waterfowl hunters alike will agree: there's nothing quite like a sunrise waking up a coastal Delmarva marsh on a crisp winter morning. As the sun peeps over the horizon, gently warming the frozen landscape and melting away the frost, the waterfowl begin their noisy morning ritual.

At the marsh edge, elegant Northern Pintails and tiny Green-winged Teal dabble on the water's surface. Nearby, elegant, white Tundra Swans bugle and hoot, tipping up in the shallow water to feed on underwater grasses below. In the deeper water, Canvasbacks and Ruddy Ducks dip and dive to the bay bottom for breakfast. A flock of Black Ducks breaks your trance with an explosive, quacking liftoff as a Bald Eagle hunts overhead.

No other group of wild animals are more representative of wild Delmarva than our ducks, geese and swans. For centuries, waterfowl have sustained us. Our hunting heritage started with our Native ancestors, and has continued through the years. From the historic gunning clubs of the Chesapeake, Delaware and Atlantic coastal bays, to the Ducks Unlimited chapters of today, these traditions have been passed from generation to generation.

Crisfield's Lem & Steve Ward, the original "Wildfowl Counterfeiters in Wood," made waterfowl decoy carving synonymous with the Chesapeake. This uniquely American art form is now celebrated at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury.

More than 30 different species of Atlantic Flyway waterfowl winter along the Delmarva coast. They usually arrive in great numbers when the northern regions are covered in ice and snow, which makes for difficult feeding conditions. Millions of birds depend upon our wetlands, shallow open waters and nearby fields for survival. Thousands of acres have been protected at our National Wildlife Refuges and State Wildlife Management Areas so that North America's ducks, geese and swans don't starve to death over the winter.

Delmarva's waterfowl range in size from tiny Green-winged Teal and Ruddy Ducks, both around 15 inches long and one pound in weight, to the enormous Trumpeter Swan, which stretches more than 5 feet and weighs in at 25 pounds.

Waterfowl generally have an elongated body in flight, and most have relatively short, pointed wings supported by strong breast muscles. Neck length varies between the species to take advantage of different aquatic food resources.

Their legs are short and scaly with webbed feet. The legs of diving ducks are set far back on the body, which helps propel them when swimming underwater, but makes them very awkward on land. Dabbling ducks, geese and swans have legs located more central to the body, which helps them walk and feed in the high marsh and fields.

The bills are made of soft keratin, similar to a human fingernail, with a thin layer of leathery skin on top. Most species have a broad, flat bill with serrations that help them filter food from the water. Swans, geese and most ducks feed on plants, while other species eat aquatic invertebrates and mollusks. One group of ducks, the mergansers, have a sharply serrated bill that helps them catch small fish.

Outer feathers are made waterproof with oils secreted at the base of the tail and spread over the body when the birds are preening. Soft, fluffy down feathers trap warm air between the skin and waterproof shell, which helps the birds survive near-freezing water temperatures. Most male ducks are more brightly colored than the females, while male and female swans and geese look the same. Only a few species of wild waterfowl breed on Delmarva, as most migrate north in the spring to nest and raise young.

Despite their similarities, waterfowl are an extremely diverse group of birds capable of survival in a range of freshwater, marine and terrestrial habitats. The variety in neck length, diving ability, and bill shape allows different waterfowl species to share wetland habitat without competing for the same food resources.

Trumpeter Swans are the largest species of waterfowl found on Delmarva in the winter. A rare visitor these days, these snowy-white birds with black bills and feet are nearly twice the size of North America's most numerous swan, the Tundra Swan. The non-native Mute Swan was introduced from Europe and swims with its long neck curved in an S shape, unlike the straight-neck posture of our native swans.

The Canada Goose has a black head and neck with a white chinstrap and mostly brown body. Delmarva hosts both migratory and residential populations of Canada Geese, which have become a nuisance in some parks. A similar-looking species, the Brant, favors Delmarva's Atlantic coast.

The noisy white-and-black Snow Goose can be found in massive winter flocks along the Delaware Bayshore. A dark form of this species, known as the "Blue Goose," can be found mixed in with the white birds.

The most common Delmarva dabbling duck is the Mallard. The male has an iridescent green head, gray sides, and curly black tail feathers. Both sexes of the less common American Black Duck look similar to a brown-and-tan female Mallard.

Other dabblers include the American Wigeon, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, and two species of teal. The male Wigeon is recognized by its gleaming white forehead. Male Gadwalls are less showy than other dabbling ducks, but have intricate gray, brown and black patterns with black "underpants." Pintails have elegant, slim necks, and males have long, pointed tail feathers. Both sexes of the Northern Shoveler have a distinctive spoon-shaped bill. Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal are our smallest dabbling ducks.

Delmarva's diving ducks include the Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, and Greater and Lesser Scaup. The Canvasback and Redhead both have reddish heads and silvery-gray bodies, but the Canvasback is distinguished by its long, sloping head profile. Male Ring-necked Ducks have a bright white ring around their bill. Both scaup species have black heads and necks and silvery gray bodies. Ruddy ducks are small, compact divers with stiff, upright tail feathers.

Our sea ducks include the Black, Surf, and White-winged Scoter; Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye, and the small but plentiful black-and-white Bufflehead.

Waterfowl populations on Delmarva once numbered in the millions each winter. In the mid-1800s, unregulated commercial hunting caused populations to drop dramatically. Some commercial hunters used boats armed with multiple guns to devastate waterfowl flocks. The count for a single winter day's hunt could number in the thousands.

As concerns about disappearing ducks grew in the early 1900s, conservation measures were enacted to prevent waterfowl extinction. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed by Congress in 1918, which ended the era of commercial waterfowl hunting. Sport hunting continued, with regulations and seasons put in place to maintain healthy populations.

Today, about a third of the entire Atlantic Flyway waterfowl population winters on Delmarva. Thanks to effective waterfowl management and partnerships between government agencies and waterfowl conservation organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited, many populations of ducks, geese and swans are stable and growing. Management efforts focus mainly on wetland protection and restoration that allows for increases in underwater grass beds.

If you want to experience Delmarva's winter waterfowl before they fly north in the spring, join the expert guides leading field trips during the Delmarva Winter Birding Weekend, which will be held January 29 through 31. For more information, please visit