Those Smiling Whistling Ducks

February 1, 2020 ~ You can’t miss the whistling chatter of the Black-bellied Whistling Duck as they fly overhead in small groups, or splash around in flocks in the waterways. They all talk at once, and they are very active, flying up momentarily to settle back among their neighbors. They often seem to arrange themselves in little regiments, shoulder to shoulder all facing the same way.

DSC_3557 edited
Chilly wind and smiling faces
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/2000 f/5.6 ISO 320 at 500mm
(Click to enlarge any image)
BBWD Range Map
Whistling Duck range map
Courtesy of All About Birds

Whistling Ducks can be found along the entire Gulf Coast; in the Houston area, they are here all year long.

 

And, while they are named “Ducks”, they have more physical and social similarities with geese and swans, putting them in their own Sub-Family Dendrocygninae, instead of being grouped with other “true” ducks, swans, and geese. Bird taxonomy is not duck soup, having been muddled by the varied and conflicting influences of appearance, genealogy… and dinosaurs.

 

Their russet shoulders and mohawk, their black belly, and their rosy orange bill make them easy to identify. From below, their wings are shiny black, but from above, they have distinctive white markings.

DSC_3590 edited and cropped
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/2000 f/5.6 ISO 320

Here, they were lined up on the boardwalk railing at Shoveler Pond in Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, in January 2020. Hundreds have gathered in the ponds along the boardwalk.

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Hello there!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/1600 f/5.6 ISO 200 at 500mm

Their smiling faces and puffy cheeks make them instant charmers. The blue tip of the bill is called the “bean”, and it keeps growing like our fingernails, if it is not worn down by foraging in the grit at the bottom of waterways.

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Black-bellied Whistling Duck with colorful bill
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/2000 f/5.6 ISO 320 at 500mm

Because they often fly in tight formations, photographers hope to get that perfectly posed and framed synchronized flying shot. Well, I tried. See this shot from Ari Hazxeghi for a better example.

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Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in tight formation
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/2000 f/5.6 ISO 320 at 500mm

I love seeing the air movement in their feathers as they settle into the water.

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Feathers flaring to a vocal greeting
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/2000 f/5.6 ISO 2000 at 500mm

The adult males and females, unlike other ducks, look the same. The juvenile birds have less vibrant plumage and a gray bill. This October 2019 image is from the boardwalk at the entrance to the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, near the beginning of the Auto Tour drive. The mother was escorting five young adults between the water lilies, keeping a careful eye out for alligators.

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Pretty mom among the lilies
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/6400 f/5.6 ISO 800 at 500mm

Give yourself a treat during these cold and gloomy winter months along the Texas Gulf Coast (down to 42F this morning, y’all), and spend some time with the smiling Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

4 thoughts on “Those Smiling Whistling Ducks”

  1. Gorgeous photos, and such a fun read! I enjoyed the referenced article as well. Sometimes when I look at birds I wonder how it took so long for us to link them to dinosaurs.
    I don’t think the other photographer’s photo is better than yours, in fact I like yours more. Yours has three, a more artistic number than four. Yours are against an open backdrop, making them easier to appreciate. Yours appear to be thrilled about their flight, while the position of the others looks laborious… gee, I have to stop picking on artists I don’t even know. Suffice it to say, I love your photo. I also love (even more!) the photo of the duck landing among friends. I was instantly impressed with the faces turned up in greeting, and the feathers witnessing the force and skill involved in such a closely attended landing. Thanks for sharing your experience and talent. Very impressive and enjoyable!

    Like

    1. Awww, thank you so much for your kind words. I learn so much from looking at the work of other photographers, I find more to appreciate as I try harder to incorporate their techniques. Wasn’t that cool about Whistling Ducks not being true ducks. LOTS more to learn there!

      Like

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