It was a cold quiet windless morning at St. Marks NWR. A crescent moon hung
low in the sky just above Jupiter. There was just the barest hint of color
on the Eastern horizon as I sat in my car on the Stony Bayou II North
levee. I had the window open despite the cold. In the darkness I heard
first, the call of a Virginia Rail and then, a single hoot from a Barred
I saw a silhouetted bird flying against the brightening sky and stepped out
of my Honda to get a better look. Frost crunched loudly underfoot in the
still morning. With my binoculars I could make out a Bald Eagle heading out
to ambush some unsuspecting prey. He flew across Stony Bayou and I could
see the outlines of the birds that he flushed; herons, ducks and
cormorants. One shape looked different and I pulled out my scope and set it
up. A lone goose was circling in the sky, presumably a Snow Goose.
At first light I began a duck survey. Stony Bayou II had Green-winged &
Blue-winged Teal, lots of Hooded Mergansers, Mallards and a few Bufflehead.
Down in the Southwest corner of the pool I finally found a blue morph Snow
Goose. This species comes in two color phases; the typical white morph that
gives the species its name and a blue morph that was once thought to be a
separate species called the Blue Goose.
“Blue” Snow Geese have a mostly dark body and a white head. Most of the
blue morph Snow Geese come from the mid-continent population that breeds
along Hudson Bay and along the shore of islands North of there. Snow Geese
are one of the most abundant waterfowl in North America, but they usually
winter West of us and are only occasionally found at St. Marks.
It took me until 1:00 pm to complete my survey. I wasn’t really trying to
be efficient and counting 1,629 ducks takes time. This is the fourth year
that I have been doing duck surveys at the refuge and I’m beginning to see
patterns. Last year, the refuge was still dealing with the effects of
Hurricane Michael. Michael churned the pool and pond bottoms, soaking the
usually freshwater habitat in salt water. This probably affected plants and
small critters that the ducks feed on. Ducks came in at the beginning of
the winter season, but most left quickly and my January duck numbers were
half what they had been in the two previous years. This year, duck numbers
are back where they should be.
In February the refuge’s winter ducks will start to move out. Most will be
gone by the end of March, but a few stragglers will hang on into early
Summer. Head down to the refuge and get in some prime winter birding.