Common Marsh Birds You Will See While Duck Hunting
- 15 Nov, 2021
Waterfowl season is here (or almost here) across much of North America! This means spending considerable time hiding out in out-of-the way wet places you otherwise wouldn’t be spending much time in. Hunting ducks alone allows you to experience a wide diversity of waterfowl species up close. But throughout the 60-day season, you’re bound to see much more than just the waterfowl species you’re targeting when spending so much time in good wetland habitat. There are hundreds of migrating avian species, many of which will utilize similar habitats or areas as ducks do. Here are a few common ones to look out for!
Ever see a silhouette out on the water that kind of looks like a duck, but you just know it’s not a duck? Make sense? Then it disappears, either with a little ripple or none at all, only to reemerge a little ways away. Not a diver species, but a pied-billed grebe. These small, swimming birds have a similar shape to ducks, but smaller bills in relation to their body size and a bit of a lower profile. Pied-billed grebes are grey and brown in color with a black vertical stripe on their pale bills. They spend time in wetlands, marshes and slow-moving bodies of water, and dive frequently while foraging or evading predation. I often see them in pairs or small groups, observing me from a safe distance and sinking slowly under the water like a submarine to disappear from view without causing a scene.
You’re far more likely to hear a rail than see one in the marsh. Rails are fairly secretive birds, preferring the cover of marsh vegetation to foraging out in the open. Their plumage is highly camouflaged and they even have feathers on their foreheads specially adapted to withstand wear and tear from marsh plant species. While they will make short flights, Virginia rails are more adept at walking around their habitat and have one of the highest leg muscle-to-flight muscle ratios among birds. Virginia rails have a long bill and legs, and make a grunting sound especially at dawn and dusk. While rarely seen, this species is actually fairly common across its range, and legal to hunt in some states.
Not to be confused with one of the many other species of long-billed sandpipers, the Wilson’s snipe is more similar to a woodcock in appearance. A round body, far-back set eyes, and long bill make them look very similar to the American woodcock. However, their behaviors and habitats are quite different, with the Wilson’s snipe living in marshes, wet pastures and wetlands while the woodcock prefers more trees in its habitat. Wilson’s snipe are very fast, zigzaggy fliers (they can reach 60 miles per hour), which is where the term “sniper” came from due to the challenging nature of hitting one. Snipe use their long bills to probe for invertebrates in the mud substrate. Check your state’s regulations because there is a hunting season on snipe in many states!
Coots: the most coveted and challenging gamebird of all! If you’re lucky enough to kill some coots, be sure to cook it and eat it: their diet consists of tubers and other aquatic vegetation that gives them a pretty good flavor. Coots are more closely related to cranes than ducks, have lobed toes and hang out in groups in the same habitats as many duck species do. Several hundred thousand coots are harvested each year in North America, whether shot opportunistically or by the rare coot specialist. Adding some coot decoys to your duck spread can add an additional element of realism to the spread if you’re hunting in an area where coots are common.
Cormorants are a black, colony-nesting bird with a long tail and neck. They eat fish, crustaceans and amphibians and dive for their prey, utilizing a hooked bill to help them catch and hold onto food. It is fairly common to see cormorants flying around, as they commonly cover 30 miles or more between their roosting and feeding areas. Fun fact: during their breeding season, cormorants develop a bright blue mouth and eyes. This species is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and is illegal to kill without a permit.
Waterfowl ID is essential to being a responsible hunter, but it doesn’t hurt to add a few extra species to your knowledge bank!
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