Ring-necked ducks show off now

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A ring-necked duck in Mill Pond, 2010. — Photo by Sarah Mayhew

Telling someone where they can find a particular kind of bird is always risky. Birds move around a lot, and even if they’re where you say they should be, they often don’t cooperate by being visible or audible. So I really appreciate a reliable critter like the ring-necked duck, which allows a pronouncement like this one: if you bring your binoculars to the pond at Cranberry Acres, the exquisite little Vineyard Open Land Foundation preserve off Lambert’s Cove Road, any day over the next few weeks, it’s virtually certain that you can get a good look at a ring-necked duck. (But approach quietly, or that look will likely be of airborne birds, rapidly receding.)

They’re worth seeing, though. The males especially, now that they’re emerging from their brief post-breeding “eclipse” plumage, are singularly handsome ducks, with white flanks, dark backs, and iridescent purple heads. The duller females are also attractive in an understated way, brownish overall but echoing the two-toned body pattern of the males. Delicate white “spectacle” markings and a pale area around the base of the bill help distinguish female ring-necked ducks from other female waterfowl.

The overall effect is much like a scaup, or “bluebill.” But the solidly black back of a ring-necked duck is clearly darker than that of a scaup, and scaup (around the Island at least) prefer the sea or the great ponds to the shallow, interior ponds preferred by the ring-neck, which have boldly patterned bills, with a white ring adjacent to a dark tip.

But don’t get your hopes for seeing the eponymous neck ring: for reasons lost in ornithological history, like the ludicrously misnamed red-bellied woodpecker, this duck is named for a mark that is generally invisible in the field, a dull golden band at the base of the male’s neck. But both sexes feature a noticeable peak or crest on the head, and even in bad light, this structural feature will help identify a ring-necked duck.

For reasons best known to the ducks themselves, the pond at Cranberry Acres is a favorite location for these waterfowl as they move south on fall migration. They turn up in other ponds, too, and occasionally even on saltwater around the Island. But some historical accounts of this species note a tendency to favor some ponds over others, seemingly similar ones nearby, and this is definitely the case on the Vineyard. Cranberry Acres almost always has a flock at the appropriate season, and these flocks can be large: I’ve seen more than 30 individuals here. The first fall migrants may turn up as early as September; they’ll likely remain until the pond freezes and forces them farther south.

Ring-necked ducks have never struck me as especially wary. But their fondness for small ponds often means that you can’t see them until you’re quite close. So the first glimpse you get is often of a small flock taking wing in response to your presence. Capable fliers equipped for long migration, ring-necked ducks leap into the air without the running take-off of a scaup. The whistling sound of their wings as they take flight is a sound that I associate strongly with late autumn (and — a useful field mark — the wings lack the extensive white on the top side that characterize the two species of scaup).

The genus to which the ring-necked duck belongs contains some prodigious divers, like the canvasback and the two scaup species. And, to be sure, a ring-necked duck can dive perfectly well. But whether on its breeding grounds, during migration, or in its winter range in the southern United States, coastal Mexico, or the Caribbean, ring-necked ducks generally frequent shallow, weedy bodies of water where diving isn’t an especially useful talent. Ring-necks often feed by tipping their tails up like mallards, or even just picking up food or prey items from the water surface as they swim.

As with many kinds of waterfowl, their diets depend mainly on what’s readily available: aquatic vegetation, seeds, insects and insect larvae, and even occasionally frogs or salamanders. Cranberry Acres is a prolific breeding area for dragonflies, and it may be that an abundance of overwintering dragonfly larvae on the pond bottom is part of what brings these ducks to this pond so reliably.

A fairly numerous species that breeds in a wide swath across Canada and the northern tier of the United States, ring-necked ducks are generally in Massachusetts only during fall migration, and for an ever briefer visit in early spring. There are a few breeding records for the Bay State, though, and it wouldn’t surprise me too much if a pair of this species lingered to breed some spring, at Cranberry Acres or perhaps in a swampy cove head on a great pond. They’re versatile birds, clearly more focused on finding the resources they need than on playing by particular rules.

Ring-necked ducks are regular in small numbers on the Vineyard Christmas Bird Count, and as our winters grow progressively milder, these ducks are likely to grow more regular and more numerous in the winter months. I won’t complain; they’re lovely birds, and even having them here just for the autumn is a fine thing.