Odd duck, odd bill, odd name: Northern shoveler

A female northern shoveler duck.

By Jeanne Church

Winter photography in Michigan is always a challenge. The most obvious challenge, of course, is the weather. I’ve spent years trying to figure out the best combination of hats, mittens, boots, and coats needed to stay warm while standing outside for hours in sub-freezing temperatures. The greatest clothing challenge of all has been finding a pair of mittens that will not only keep my fingers from becoming itty-bitty icicles but will also allow me to operate the small dials and buttons on my camera. I have gradually learned, though, that no matter how warm my mittens are, I should always carry hand warmers in each of my pockets. Sometimes, I’ve even stuffed them into my boots!

Once I’m all bundled up and ready to face the elements, I am still left with the challenge of finding something to photograph. During the spring, summer, and fall, there are always enough birds, butterflies, frogs, turtles, dragonflies, and flowers to keep me happy. Come winter, though, it’s considerably more difficult, and I am often left hoping that an odd duck or two might be migrating through our area.

While there are any number of odd ducks stopping by during our winter months, like northern pintails, buffleheads, and goldeneyes, the oddest of them all is the northern shoveler, and the oddest place of all to find it is the Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Plant!

The Muskegon Wastewater Facility, where I saw my very first shoveler, attracts a wide variety of birds. With 20 miles of drainage ditches, 60 acres of treatment ponds, and 1,700 acres of storage lagoons, it’s a water wonderland for our avian friends! At least 256 species of birds have been documented at the treatment plant, which is two-thirds of all the species ever recorded in Michigan!

It’s hard not to crack a smile when you see a northern shoveler. They have these very distinctive, shovel-shaped bills that give them a decidedly comical look. It definitely sets them apart from all the other dabbling ducks. Interestingly, though, when shovelers first hatch, their bills are unremarkable; they look like any other ordinary duck. But, as these birds mature, their bill continues to grow until it takes on this long, peculiar shape.

The shoveler’s beak has about 110 fine comb-like projections (called lamellae) along the edges that act like a colander, filtering out tiny crustaceans, seeds, and aquatic invertebrates from the water. As the northern shovelers swim around, you will often see them swinging their bills methodically from side to side just below the surface of the water as they filter out their tiny prey. Sometimes, large groups of shovelers will work together as a team and swim in circles to stir up food. Less frequently, you will see them upending themselves, like typical dabblers, to look below the surface for food. Or, they will use their wings to help them dive under the water in search of food.

I have found northern shovelers here in southwest Michigan from late September to early March at either the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery or the Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Facility.

If you decide to go in search of these goofy-looking ducks, keep your binoculars handy! From a distance, they blend in quite well with the hordes of mallards who also love to visit our local lakes, ponds, and sewage lagoons!

You can follow Jeanne at her blog: picturewalks.org

Leave a Reply