Fine feathers make fine ducks

During all that child-rearing that you saw in my last post, the male was sometimes around, helping out, but by July 2nd his breeding plumage was largely gone, and he was changing into “eclipse” plumage, a rather wonderful term for a bird whose glory has faded now that he has his mate. (Although I am not sure I want my current natural hair color to be termed my “eclipse” phase.) The white neck markings remain all year.

Wood duck

By the middle of August, the birds have dispersed, and I found this solitary male, now in full eclipse plumage, but still with his distinctive red eye

Wood duck

The eclipse plumage is short-lived. As summer starts to wane, they prepare for a new season. Instead of waiting for spring, they set out to attract the females even before the migration starts. This September 7th photo of a scruffy and embarrassed-looking male shows the first glimpses of the return of the breeding plumage

On September 12th , his head is getting there, but the rest of him is still pretty drab.

But look at him on September 2oth: the head is transformed, but the body is not there yet

Finally by September 26th he and his friend look like this, and this new attire seems to be pulling the birds, (a 1960’s UK expression, for readers too young to know), since they were accompanied by two females, one of which is in this shot.

Just for comparison, here is his outfit on May 12th, so he still lacks a few final touches:

But on October 12th, he is returned to his former glory, floating on the autumnal reflections:

PS: The mechanics of molting are quite complex. Like many ducks, there are two molts each year, in spring and fall. In the spring, only the body feathers are replaced, removing the bright breeding plumage and producing the more discrete “eclipse” plumage. In the late summer to fall, first all the wing feathers are replaced, simultaneously, meaning that for about three weeks they cannot fly. Then, once they are mobile again and able to flee from predators, the body plumage is molted and the highly visible breeding plumage comes back in. They are now ready to attract females again and pair formation begins. Because they are helpless for part of this long molting process, they often fly to special secluded molting grounds in the far north, returning to the breeding ground once the process is complete. But some stay in situ, as my photos show.

PPS: I have told this story as if I have been following a single male through his plumage changes, but of course I cannot tell one male from another, so I am sure it is a series of different ducks!

3 thoughts on “Fine feathers make fine ducks”

  1. I enjoyed reading ‘Moira’s Wood Duck Plumage Documentary.’ Very handsome duck. Awesome photos! I wonder how they know there’s a secluded, safe, molting area.


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