Since 2000, there have been at least 28 species of waterfowl recorded on the waters of Jamaica Pond.  At 68 acres, this 50 feet deep spring-fed glacial kettle pond is the largest fresh water pond in Boston.  While ducks can be found here year-round, fall and winter are peak times to see a greater variety of species.  As lakes and ponds farther north begin to freeze over, waterfowl that depend on open water for food and protection move south.

Probably the most common bird on the Pond is the Canada Goose.  Their numbers are greatest at night when they rest here, protected from predators like coyotes.  Each morning hundreds leave, heading to grassy areas like the William J Devine Golf Course at Franklin Park.  Everyone recognizes these birds, although they are not universally loved as they foul grass and paths with their excrement and can get a bit aggressive during the breeding season.

Canada Goose Photo: Bob Mayer

Mallard ducks are also common in all seasons on the Pond.  They are in the group of ducks called “dabblers”, which describes their style of feeding on the surface or “tipping- up” to reach down for vegetation in shallow water.

A pair of Mallards, bottom-up, as they reach for vegetation below the surface. Photo: Bob Mayer

Feeding the waterfowl at the Pond is discouraged; a bread diet is no healthier for them than it is for us, and it encourages the ducks to hang around and foul the ground.  However, as birds stream in from all over the pond for free eats, it is too tempting for children and loving grandparents to resist feeding them and so the practice persists.  Here’s a shot of a male Mallard looking like a toy as he carefully negotiates his way across the ice:

Mallard, male Photo : Bob Mayer

The females in most avian species are less colorful than their male counterparts.  Males are generally the instigators in the mating season and have more need for fancy looks to gain attention and promote their gene pool. More importantly, the females usually manage the brooding and infant care and do that best if they blend into their surroundings.  A favorite of mine on the Pond for many years was a female Mallard who was a partial albino (leucistic) and in addition had a very fancy “do”:

My wife and I nicknamed this leucistic female Mallard  “Blondie.” Her head ornament appeared to be made of feathers rather than being a growth of some sort.   She was very popular with the local boys on the Pond, but I have not seen her recently.   Ducks may live more than 20 years.

Mallards and Canada Geese are year-round residents of Jamaica Pond.  In the fall several other species of waterfowl arrive almost every year. The most abundant are American Coots.

American Coot – The blackish head, bulbous gray body, stark white bill (not at all like a duck), and lobed (rather than webbed) feet are diagnostic features of this bird. Photo: Bob Mayer

Coots are not true ducks; notice the absence of web feet in the image.  They arrive in early November and a few may remain into April, but a cover (the collective name for a group of coots) of forty or more is usually present on the Pond in the dead of winter. Here are some coots that underestimated how cold it was getting in January of 2007:

American Coots on a cakewalk as the pond ices over, a dangerous time for them, as they are vulnerable to attack from Great Black-backed Gulls. Photo: Bob Mayer

The Ruddy Duck is another winter visitor to the Pond. These small “diving” ducks have a white cheek patch, most prominent in males. The nickname for the Ruddy Duck is “stiff-tail” because of their tendency to carry their tails erect when swimming:

Pair of Ruddies showing the erect stiff-tail and the male (right) developing its ruddy breast Photo: Bob Mayer

Two female Ruddies and a male (back) showing the more prominent white cheek patch and the bill beginning to develop the intense blue of a breeding duck. Photo: Bob Mayer

Almost all ducks have two plumages each year.  In most species the alternate or “breeding” plumage is displayed in the colder months and the basic plumage—often much less fancy in males—is worn in the fall. Ruddy Ducks are the reverse, so we don’t get to see the male Ruddy Duck with his rusty body and shocking bill color when breeding:

Male Ruddy Duck in breeding plumage showing a turquoise colored bill.  Photo: Bob Mayer

Even so these little ducks, which can number over 100 in some winters, are fun to watch as they disappear to forage for plants or small fresh water creatures below.

Another duck that appears every winter on Jamaica Pond is arguably its most beautiful visitor, the Hooded Merganser:

Two male Hooded Mergansers and a female above them.  Photo: Bob Mayer

Hooded Mergs are the smallest members of the merganser family, the others being Common Merganser (seen occasionally on the Pond) and Red-breasted Merganser, a primarily salt-water species.  The patterning in the male is stunning, but the subtlety of the female plumage is equally arresting. They are seldom numerous on the pond but always stand out with their brilliant finery. These diving ducks are strictly carnivores, disappearing for half a minute or more as they hunt for fish or crustaceans.  Their bills are specially adapted for their diet—long, thin and with serrated edges for grabbing slippery fish.

A female Hooded Merganser with a successful catch. Both sexes have a ridge or crest of feathers on the head that they can erect. Photo: Bob Mayer

Finally the smallest water bird that usually visits Jamaica Pond each fall and winter is, like the coot, not really a duck:

Pied-billed Grebe.  At less than a foot in length, this is the smallest waterfowl on the pond.  Some members of the Grebe family perform elaborate dances at their breeding grounds in Western North America. Photo: Bob Mayer

Pied-Billed Grebes have small heads and long necks and spend all of their lives on water except during nesting.  They are voracious fish eaters:

Pied-billed Grebe. At first glance the fish seems too big for the bird, but it was eventually swallowed. Photo: Bob Mayer

As stated above, there are many species of waterfowl that have been seen on the pond in recent years.  My next post on Jamaica Pond ducks will discuss some of its less frequent visitors.

Enjoy the winter ducks before they depart to their breeding areas in a few months