December 15th , 2013 10:21 am Leave a comment

Strange bill provides Northern Shoveler its name


You can tell it’s the holiday season as there doesn’t seem to be time to prepare for Christmas, let alone get outdoors to look for some new birds to add to my year list.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been looking. The most exciting recent observation was of a duck that I first saw this year back on Jan. 13. I saw that first Northern Shoveler of 2013 at Erwin Fishery Park. I didn’t see any other shovelers until September when I observed flocks at Austin Springs on Boone Lake and Musick’s Campground at South Holston Lake.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A pair of Northern Shovelers at Erwin Fishery Park in Unicoi County.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A pair of Northern Shovelers at Erwin Fishery Park in Unicoi County.

Then, on Sunday, Dec. 1, my mom and I found a pair of Northern Shovelers, again at the fish pond at Erwin Fishery Park. This particular pair proved extremely photogenic. We got to watch them with binoculars for an extended time, and I snapped several photographs.

When we first arrived at the pond, I noticed a duck showing a lot of white in the plumage. For a fleeting instant, I entertained the hope that the bird was a Canvasback, which is one of the few ducks I still need for my 2013 list of local birds. Even when that didn’t turn out to be the case, I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve always enjoyed observing this duck. The Northern Shoveler is a bit of an oddball among the dabbling ducks, which are so named for their habit of dabbling for food in shallow waters. The characteristic that makes the Northern Shoveler so odd is the large, spoon-shaped bill possessed by both sexes.

Males and females are both about 19 inches long and weigh around 1.5 pounds. Males, which are slightly larger overall, are also more striking in appearance than females.

Male Northern Shovelers have an iridescent green head and neck that, if not for the bird’s unique bill, would cause the bird to look very much like a Mallard. The male shovelers also have a white chest and breast and chestnut belly and sides. The wings have a gray-blue shoulder patch, which is separated from a brilliant green speculum by a tapered white stripe. The bill is black in breeding plumage and the legs and feet are orange.

Like most female dabbling ducks, female Northern Shovelers have a brownish plumage and would not look much different than a female Mallard if not for the spoon-shaped bill. The bill is olive green to orange with some dark spotting.
The bill is definitely the most immediately visible diagnostic mark that helps contrast the Northern Shoveler from such related waterfowl as Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall and American Black Duck. The bill, which widens towards the tip, represents a shape unique among the bills of North American waterfowl.


However, in other parts of the world, other spoon-billed shovelers are known. The Australasian Shoveler (Anas rhynchotis) is native to southwestern and southeastern Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. The Cape Shoveler (Anas smithii) is a species that resides in South Africa, and uncommon further north in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, southern Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique and Zambia. The Red Shoveler (Anas platalea) is a species found in southern South America.

Northern Shovelers breed in the prairies of Canada, as well as the grasslands of the north-central United States. For nesting purposes, these ducks prefer shallow marshes with muddy bottoms that are rich in invertebrate life.
After the breeding season, Northern Shovelers migrate to California, coastal Louisiana and Texas, some traveling as far south as the north and central highlands of Mexico. These ducks in winter make use of fresh and brackish coastal marshes, as well as ponds. These ducks occasionally visit Central America, the Caribbean and northern Colombia.

I saw large numbers of Northern Shovelers many years ago during a January visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. To this day, that’s the most of the ducks I have ever seen in one place.

According to the Ducks Unlimited website, Northern Shoveler populations have remained fairly steady since 1955. However, some recent years have seen an increase in the numbers of these ducks. Specifically, in 2007 and 2009, record numbers — ranging from 4.3 to 4.6-million birds — were recorded in waterfowl surveys. This increase was likely due to favorable habitat conditions for breeding, migrating and wintering Northern Shovelers.

As might be expected from a bird with such a weird bill, Northern Shovelers forage for food in a specialized manner by dabbling and sifting in shallow water. Seeds of marsh plants, as well as some marsh vegetation, are consumed, but much of this duck’s diet consists of aquatic insects, mollusks and crustaceans. These organisms are consumed by filtering water with their bill. The shoveler takes in water at the tip of its bill and jettisons it out at the base of the bill.
While the Northern Shovelers provided an interesting diversion, I am still looking for Canvasbacks or any other bird to increase my year list total. During some heavy rain on Dec. 9, a large number of ducks were observed by Rick Knight at Musick’s Campground at South Holston Lake. Among the waterfowl were two Canvasbacks, as well as a Long-tailed Duck. I’ll have to keep looking.
Glen Eller, a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, notified me that his daughter has been hosting her own winter hummingbird.

“My daughter, Lia, who lives in Fall Branch, has had an immature hummer since before Thanksgiving,” Glen wrote.

Last week, I wrote about all the hummingbirds being reported throughout the region. Since last week, a couple of those birds have departed.

I would like to hear from anyone who notices a hummingbird at a feeder. Give me a call at 297-9077 to report a lingering hummingbird.

If you can, make a point to slow down, enjoy the holiday season and get outdoors to enjoy the birds. If that’s not possible, fill up a feeder with sunflower seed and wait for the birds to come to you. Make a comment, ask a question or share an observation by calling me at 297-9077 or by sending an email to or I am also on Facebook.


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