Northern Shovelers are among the more commonly seen ducks during winter months in the Tucson area. These are migratory birds, visiting us regularly each fall and winter.  This winter, however, there are far fewer of these birds visiting traditional haunts than in previous winters.  At Sweetwater Wetlands I’m used to seeing dozens of these birds on the interior ponds.  This year, there are only a handful.  It’s unclear to me why that is so.  Perhaps the el Niño weather pattern has something to do with it, but I’m just guessing.

But, there are some here and it is a pleasure to photograph them.  They are beautiful.  These ducks are considerably smaller than the common Mallards.   Here’s a female._N4B7148 copyShe’s an attractive and graceful bird.  As is the case with many species of duck she is considerably drabber than a male, shown below, but her plumage with its intricate patterns of beige and white, is still gorgeous.

Now, here’s a male.


The bird’s brilliant russet/white/green plumage is striking as is its golden yellow eye.

Notice the beaks on both the male and female.  They are huge in proportion to the birds’ bodies and much larger, both objectively and proportionately, than the beaks on any other ducks.  To what purpose?  Shovelers are filter feeders.  They feed by sucking water into their mouths and filtering it through sieve-like strainers (“lamellae”) that have the same purpose as the baleine plates on certain species of whale.  Small invertebrates get trapped on the strainers and the ducks consume them as food.

Here’s a shoveler feeding.  You’ll notice that he (the bird is an immature male) has his head nearly fully immersed in the water.

_N4B7413 copy

That’s typical for this species.  It’s not uncommon for one of these ducks to swim in circles, sometimes for many minutes, with its head partially immersed like this.  Sometimes, Shovelers will immerse their entire upper bodies in the water as they feed.  However, they do not dive for their food.  That behavior is reserved for an entirely different class of ducks.  Shovelers are “dabblers,” meaning they feed on the surface.  Ducks that dive are called “divers.”

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 400DO, aperture preferred setting.  The first image shot at ISO 1000, f5.6 @ 1/3200.  The second image shot at ISO 400, f7.1 @ 1/1000.  The third image shot at ISO 400, f7.1 @ 1/500.



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