Deep Dive Recap: Dabbling and Diving Ducks

Text by Kristin Bartschi. Photos by George Sutherland.

Ducks. They’re cute, they paddle around in parks. Some ducks are so commonplace that we don’t really think twice about them (i.e. the quintessential mallard). But, as with all animals, there is a lot to learn and every duck has a unique story. 

Recently, I decided to expand my rudimentary knowledge and attend a deep dive on ducks at Gulf Branch Nature Center in Arlington. Naturalist Ken Rosenthal hosts deep dive lectures about once a month at Gulf Branch. Each hour-long talk focuses on a different topic, such as pollinators or homes made out of sticks. 

Attending one of these has been on my list for a while and it did not disappoint. Ken’s enthusiasm and knowledge of animals is infectious, and the hour-long presentation flew by. 

A man presents a powerpoint in front of an audience
Ken preparing to dive into duck plumage.

Did you know there are 154 species of ducks worldwide? 50 of those species can be found in North America, with 48 different species in Virginia and 28 right here in Arlington. 

Now, we covered A LOT in this deep dive, so I’m just going to pull out a couple fun facts.  

How do ducks stay dry? 

Did you ever think about this? I actually hadn’t until this talk, but it’s fascinating. Ducks have oil glands at the base of their tails. They use the oil from these glands to preen their feathers, which waterproofs their feathers and allows them to dabble or dive without getting wet. Ducklings have fluffy plumage which traps air and helps them stay buoyant above the water.  

Total eclipse of the feathers

One of my favorite facts was about “eclipse plumage.” When male ducks molt after breeding season, they acquire a temporary plumage that closely resembles the camouflaged plumage of female ducks. This helps to protect them from predators during the molt. If you look at a male mallard during his eclipse plumage, he looks almost identical to a female mallard! Want to spot the difference? While plumage color changes during molting, duck bill colors never do. So, the mallard’s yellow bill (as opposed to the female’s brown and orange bill) will give him away.   

Want to learn more (and catch a glimpse of some of Arlington’s unique ducks)? 

Ken recommended quite a few books, including: 

A stack of bird guide books

Interested in attending a deep dive? 

If you’re interested in learning more about the animals that surround us, I’d certainly recommend signing up for one of Ken’s deep dives in the future. (If you’re an ARMN member, any deep dive will count towards your CE credits.) They occur once a month on Thursday evenings and are $5 to attend. To look for upcoming talks, visit the events page on the Arlington Parks and Recreation website. Ken’s next deep dive will be Animal Meteorologists on Thursday, February 13th from 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. at Gulf Branch Nature Center. Check it out! 

In the meantime, if you’d like to take a look at some of our local ducks, good viewing locations are at Gravelly Point or Roaches Run.

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