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The Duck that Flies across the Hemisphere – Northern Shoveler

Dec 2022
Author : Green Power

Winter is coming, and so are many migratory birds. Every year, tens of thousands of migratory birds visit Deep Bay in Hong Kong for winter time. Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) is among them. It is indeed amazing that the seemingly chubby duck can fly all the way across half the hemisphere for overwintering!

Northern Shoveler is widely distributed around the world. Similar to other wild ducks, the male and female Northern Shovelers have highly contrasting plumages. To attract the opposite sex, the male duck has a metallic deep green head, dark brown back with white lines, chestnut belly, white breast and abdomen, highlighted by a pair of bright yellow eyes and orange legs. The female, on the other hand, is less interesting, with a greyish brown body for better camouflage from predators when incubating eggs.

Northern Shoveler is distinguished by its large, shovel-like bill that is broader than that of other ducks. Hence it can be easily identified even when flying at some distance.

The bill is an important feeding structure for birds. As with other spoon-billed waterbirds, Northern Shoveler sways its bill in shallow water to filter feed on planktons, crustaceans and seeds from the water and mud. The comb-like structures along the edge of its bill help with filtering. Sometimes, several shovelers get together and swim swiftly in circles to hunt down small animals in the disturbed water!

The restful duck

Perhaps there is a popular notion that ducks are not capable fliers. Many novice birdwatchers are surprised to see flying ducks for the first time. The truth is, not only can wild ducks fly, they can actually fly long distances! Northern Shovelers mostly breed in the northern hemisphere, and migrate to Africa, India and Southeast Asia for overwintering!

What do Northern Shovelers usually do during the winter? Researchers have studied a group of Northern Shovelers overwintering in Algeria, northern Africa. From 9am till 4pm, the wild shovelers spent over 60% of the time sleeping! Swimming took up 15% of the time, preening 10%, and feeding and flying 7% and 4%, respectively. The daily schedule of Northern Shovelers seems rather relaxed!

The male Northern Shoveler has distinctive plumage.
The female looks dull.
Northern Shovelers are known to migrate long distances.
© Henry Lui

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