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