After all the excitement of migration which continued late into May, it is time to catch up on house and yard work and witness fledgling birds all around you.
Perhaps you saw a cardinal carrying a leaf in her bill. Chances are she is starting a second brood. Or you have Barn Swallow nestlings just about to fledge from your underneath your porch eaves (and not a moment too soon.) Maybe you have witnessed a parade of Carolina Wrens and their young as they fuss and flit around the yard. But have you seen any bigger birds and their broods? Ducks come to mind. Two species breed here.
Austin’s Breeding Ducks
An eye-catching bird to watch for is the Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Austin has a healthy population of them, so your chances of spotting one are good. They are busy raising young right now, and can be seen close to retention ponds all over town. The adult duck is very distinctive. It has a bubblegum pink bill, a pale grayish upper neck and face, with a brown outline along the back of the head and neck. No surprise that it does in fact have a black belly, with a striking chestnut-colored breast and back. When it flies, the white wing patch is distinctive. The Black-bellied Whistling Duck has very long pink legs and can sometimes be seen perching in trees. It used to be referred to as a tree duck. Its long neck and legs give it a gooselike appearance.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks have a characteristic wheezy call, and often you will hear them before you see them. They can be gregarious birds, gathering in small flocks. One of the best places to look for them is the Walnut Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant at 7113 FM 969, Austin, TX 78724 where they like to congregate at a waterfall by the building. Another place that sometimes has large numbers is the retention pond on the south side of South Lakeshore Boulevard, east of Riverside.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks have large broods, with clutch sizes of 9 to 18 eggs. The ducklings don’t look at all like the adults initially, with camouflaged bodies that are a mix of yellow and black. Duckling is on the menu for many predators including fish, turtles, and bullfrogs. Even so, the good news is that Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are expanding their range. They seem to be adapting well to human-dominated landscapes, but will benefit from nest boxes and no disturbance from dogs and people when they are nesting on the ground.
The other photogenic Austin duck with young now is the Wood Duck. Good places to check for recent broods are the Triangle Pond at 45th and Guadalupe and Camp Mabry’s pond. Wood Ducks prefer more wooded ponds than Black-bellied do, and both ponds mentioned fit the bill.
Interestingly both Black-bellied Whistling and Wood Duck females sometimes engage in “egg dumping” where they all lay eggs in the same nest. It is likely that the dominant female broods the entire clutch. This might explain those big clutches and numerous offspring. More information on “egg dumping” can be found at the Wood Duck Society website.