Avian travelers cross paths in the Riverwalk wetlands

Photo courtesy Darryl Saffer
A male American wigeon.

By Josh Pike
Pagosa Wetland Partners

As the autumn air becomes chilly and the leaves change color, the Riverwalk wetlands see a flurry of activity. During this season, a multitude of avian travelers pass through the wetlands in the course of their fall migrations. These migrants include birds across the spectrum, from songbirds to geese. 

However, one of the most recognizable groups are the ducks. Although the final destinations and goals of these birds vary, they all cross paths on the wetlands ponds, where they stop to feed, rest and even stay for the winter. 

The American wigeon is a medium-size duck identified by its warm brown coloring, gray colored bill and the white cap that appears on breeding males. During the summer, the wigeons congregate in wetlands and rivers in the northern United States and Canada, feeding on aquatic vegetation while females nest on the dry ground nearby. After the end of their summer molt, the birds begin to fly south, spurred on by the shortening days. By the time the wigeons have reached the Riverwalk wetlands in Pagosa, some of them have finished that journey. A population of them consistently winters in the wetlands, taking advantage of warm water and lack of ice to feed on plants in and around the pools. On these ponds, mating pairs will be formed amidst violent squabbles between males before the lengthening spring days send the American wigeons northward again.

The cinnamon teal is a striking duck, with males having a distinctive dark reddish-brown coloration and both sexes sharing a large black beak. In contrast to the wigeon, many cinnamon teal spend their summers and breed in New Mexico and Colorado, including a pair on the Riverwalk wetlands this year. During nesting season, the teal build nests of rushes and grasses laid on the ground near the water, where the females incubate eggs while the males repel intruders. In contrast to the wigeons, the teal’s journey is far from over when they reach the Riverwalk wetlands. The teal will primarily winter in the wetlands of Mexico and thus their stop in the Riverwalk wetlands is a brief pause, a chance to recover their energy before continuing their long trip south.

Throughout the disruptions of migration, the mallard ducks remain calmly in place. The mallard is perhaps the most recognizable waterbird in Pagosa Springs, with their green heads, yellow bills and loud calls. Permanent residents of the Riverwalk wetlands and the surrounding ponds, the mallards are there before other ducks arrive and stay after others have departed. They tolerate other waterbirds with equanimity, often forming large flocks with them. Some mallards will also migrate short distances and such migratory groups can be seen intermixed with the permanent residents on the wetland ponds. During the chaotic migratory seasons, the mallards provide a dependable foundation for both other waterbirds and the people who observe them.

During the fall migration, the Riverwalk wetland ponds are crowded with birds, including many species beyond the ones this article has mentioned. As you walk the Riverwalk, see what other birds you can observe and consider what their migration stories might be. Although there are many unifying patterns, every bird has its own distinct quirks and fascinating takes on the basic experience of migration. 

Cornell Lab’s allaboutbirds.org is an excellent resource for learning about these different migration experiences and for gaining a window into the experiences of migrating birds. There are a multitude of stories told through the autumn flights of birds overhead. If you want to learn more about migrating wetland birds or the Riverwalk wetlands in general, please contact Pagosa Wetland Partners at pagosawetlands@gmail.com.