Monday, November 22, 2021

Episode 604 (11-22-21): Canvasbacks Come Back to the Chesapeake as Winter Approaches

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (4:33).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 11-19-21.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of November 22, 2021.  This revised episode from January 2014 is part of a series this year of winter-related episodes.

SOUND – ~5 sec

That’s the landing sound of a large, distinctive duck that can be found in winter on Virginia’s coastal waters.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds to some more of this species’ sounds, and see if you know this bird.  And here’s a hint: the bird’s name, and the male’s beautiful color, may remind you of a painting.

SOUND – ~12 sec

If you guessed a Canvasback, you’re right!  Canvasbacks breed on water bodies in the prairies of Canada and the northern United States, but they winter in large sections of the U.S. and Mexico, with one concentration in the Chesapeake Bay area.  According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, at one time almost half of North America’s Canvasbacks wintered around the Chesapeake, but that number has decreased to about 20 percent because of reductions in Bay submerged aquatic vegetation, or Bay grasses, a valuable winter food for this species.  Canvasbacks are diving ducks, meaning they typically go completely underwater to obtain food and avoid predators.  In winter, Canvasbacks feed largely on plant roots and buds, while in summer they’ll add to their plant diet a variety of aquatic insects and other animals. 

Predators on adult and young Canvasbacks include mink, coyotes, foxes, owls and other birds, some reptiles and fish, and human hunters, while Canvasback eggs are eaten by various mammals and birds.

The Canvasback is considered one of the most distinctive North American ducks.  The following quote from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birds of the World” Web site describes how the bird stands out.  Quote: “This exclusively North American species is considered the ‘aristocrat of ducks.’  The male's striking appearance—rich chestnut-red head and neck, black chest, white back, and long, sloping, blackish bill—along with its large size distinguish it in the field.”  Unquote.

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use the Canvasback sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.  We close with about 50 seconds of music appropriate for the Canvasback’s Chesapeake Bay connection.  Here’s “Chesapeake Bay Ballad,” by Torrin Hallett, a graduate student at the Yale School of Music.

MUSIC - ~51 sec – instrumental


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close this episode.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The Virginia Water Radio episode revises and replaces Episode 197, 1-20-14, and the sounds segment of Episode 50, 1-24-11.

Emily Whitesell helped write this original script for this episode during a Virginia Tech English Department internship in Spring 2011 with the Virginia Water Resources Research Center.

The Canvasback sounds were from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott.  Lang Elliot’s work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site,

“Chesapeake Bay Ballad” is copyright 2020 by Torrin Hallett, used with permission.  Torrin is a 2018 graduate of Oberlin College and Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio; a 2020 graduate in Horn Performance from Manhattan School of Music in New York; and a 2021 graduate of the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver.  He is currently a graduate student at the Yale School of Music.  More information about Torrin is available online at  Thanks very much to Torrin for composing the piece especially for Virginia Water Radio.  This music was used previously by Virginia Water Radio most recently in Episode 565, 2-22-21.

Following are other music pieces composed by Torrin Hallett for Virginia Water Radio, with episodes featuring the music.
“A Little Fright Music” – used most recently in Episode 601, 10-31-21, on connections among Halloween, water, and the human body.
“Beetle Ballet” – used in Episode 525, 5-18-20, on aquatic beetles.
“Corona Cue” – used in Episode 517, 3-23-20, on the coronavirus pandemic.
“Flow Stopper” – used in Episode 599, 10-18-21, on “Imagine a Day Without Water.”
“Geese Piece” – used most recently in Episode 440, 10-1-18, on E-bird.
“Ice Dance” – used in Episode 556, 12-21-20, on how organisms survive freezing temperatures.
“Lizard Lied” – used in Episode 514, 3-2-20, on lizards.
“New Year’s Water” – used in Episode 349, 1-2-17, on the New Year.
“Rain Refrain” – used most recently in Episode 559, 1-11-21, on record rainfall in 2020.
“Runoff” – used in Episode 585, 7-12-21 – on middle schoolers calling out stormwater-related water words.
“Spider Strike” – used in Episode 523, 5-4-20, on fishing spiders.
“Tropical Tantrum” – used most recently in Episode 580, 6-7-21, on the 2021 Atlantic tropical storm season preview.
“Tundra Swan Song
– used in Episode 554, 12-7-20, on Tundra Swans.
“Turkey Tune” – used in Episode 343, 11-21-16, on the Wild Turkey. 

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at


Male Canvasback (location and date not identified).  Photo by Lee Karney, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at; specific URL for this photo was, as of 11/22/21.

Female Canvasback in Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge in Alaska in May 2005.  Photo by Donna A. Dewhurst, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at; specific URL for this photo was, as of 11/22/21.


The scientific name of the Canvasback is Aythya valisineria.

Here are some points about Canvasbacks, excerpted from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Canvasback,” online at

Physical Description

“The adult male has a head that is rusty red, shading to almost black near the bill.  The breast is grayish-black and the sides and back are light gray to white.  The wings and speculum are gray, and the eye is red.  The bill is long and sloping, black, with decidedly long sloping profile that clearly distinguishes it from the redhead. …The adult female head is light brown.  The sides and breast are olive-brown to gray-brown, and the underparts are light gray. The back is gray, finely barred with darker gray, and the wings are grayish brown.  …They have short wings, and a rapid wingbeat.  This species has difficulty leaving the water.  It is one of the fastest flying ducks.  …It is one of the largest ducks.”


“The breeding season is from May to June… This species breeds in Alaska, western Canada, northwest United States, western North America from the prairie provinces of Canada, south into the central and western states and occasionally as far east as Hudson Bay with a few as far north as Alaska.  Spring and early summer they are found in marshes with shallow waters [and in] flooded farmland.  In mid-summer they frequent large marshes and lakes, sloughs, and swampy areas.”

Migration and Winter Habitat and Behavior

“During migration, they fly in large ‘V’ shaped flocks at high altitudes. … They are also associated with larger bodies of water.  …Late migration is in the fall, and early migration in the spring.  This species migrates cross country from the northwestern United States to the Atlantic Coast, principally the Chesapeake Bay.  The migration corridors shift annually, and they have a strong tendency to return to the same breeding ground.  … The heaviest flight is from the Canada pothole country to the Chesapeake Bay. … They arrive at Chesapeake Bay later than most other ducks.  The Chesapeake Bay fall migration is from October 15 to December 15, with a peak from November 15 to December 15.  The spring migration is from February 20 to May 1, with the peak from March 1 to March 30.  They occupy specific and traditional rivers, lakes, and marshes on migratory areas.  … This species winters to Mexico [and to the] Atlantic and Gulf Coast.  ...Virginia is one of best areas for canvasbacks.    They are found in lakes, salt bays and estuaries, brackish and alkaline waters near the coast, estuaries and shallow bays, [and] rarely on the open sea. … The optimum in Chesapeake Bay areas is in fresh and brackish estuarine bays with extensive beds of submerged plants or abundant invertebrates, primarily in brackish rather than salt or freshwater areas. … There has been a 53% decline in wintering populations in the United States.  There has also been a decrease in the Atlantic flyway.”  [Population decreases have been caused by several factors, including drainage of breeding marshland, food supplies being depleted by carp and swan, pollution of wintering areas, disappearance of submerged aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay, droughts on breeding grounds, oil spills, and illegal hunting and trapping.]


“This species dives and obtains food from the bottoms of ponds, lakes, large rivers, open marshes, and muddy bottoms.  Plants are uprooted and the roots are eaten.  This species dives to 20-30 feet. … Important foods include…aquatic plants…, molluscs, insects, caddisfly and midge larvae, dragonflies, [and] small fish.  Chesapeake Bay foods include wild celery, widgeon grass, eelgrass, pondweed, clams and mud crabs.  Juvenile foods include caddisfly larvae, midge larvae, and mayfly nymphs.”


Used for Audio

Mike Burke, “The big, beautiful canvasback: What’s not to love?”  Bay Journal, November 2021, available online at

Chesapeake Bay Program, “Birds,” online at; the Canvasback entry is online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at  The Canvasback entry is online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Birds of the World” online at (subscription may be required).  The Canvasback entry is online at

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay-3rd Edition, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2006.

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y., 2001. 

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at; the Canvasback entry is online at

For More Information about Birds in Virginia and Elsewhere

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird. Information is available online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, “Animal Diversity Web,” online at

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “List of Native and Naturalized Fauna in Virginia, August 2020,” online (as a PDF) at

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at  The Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation, online at  This site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Birds” and “Weather/Climate/Natural Disasters” subject categories.

Following are links to several other winter-related episodes, including episodes on some birds that reside in Virginia typically only in winter (listed separately).  Please note that some of these episodes are being redone in late 2021 and early 2022; in those cases, the respective links below will have information on the updated episodes.

Freezing and ice – Episode 403, 1-15-18 (especially for grades K-3).
Frost – Episode 597, 10-4-21.
Ice on ponds and lakes – Episode 404, 1-22-18 (especially for grades 4-8).
Ice on rivers – Episode 406, 2-5-18 (especially for middle school grades).
Polar Plunge® for Special Olympics – Episode 356, 2-20-17.
Snow physics and chemistry – Episode 407, 2-12-18 (especially for high school grades).
Snow, sleet, and freezing rain – Episode 461, 2-25-19.
Snow terms – Episode 300, 1-25-16.
Surviving freezing – Episode 556, 12-21-20.
Winter precipitation and water supplies – Episode 567, 3-8-21.
Winter preparedness – Episode 553, 11-30-20.
Water thermodynamics – Episode 195, 1-6-14. 

Bird-related Episodes for Winter

Audubon Christmas Bird CountEpisode 294, 12-14-15.
American Avocet – Episode 543, 9-21-20.
Brant (goose) – Episode 502, 12-9-19.
Common Goldeneye (duck) – Episode 303, 2/15/16.
Green-winged Teal (duck) – Episode 398, 12-11-17.
Grebes (Horned and Red-necked) – Episode 233, 9-29-14.
Loons – Episode 445, 11-5-18.
Fall migration – Episode 603, 11-15-21.
Snow Goose – Episode 507, 1-13-20.
Tundra Swan – Episode 554, 12-7-20.
Winter birds sampler from the Chesapeake Bay area – Episode 565, 2-22-21.


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2020 Music SOLs 

SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

2018 Science SOLs  

Grades K-4: Living Systems and Processes
1.5 – Animals, including humans, have basic life needs that allow them to survive.
2.4 – Plants and animals undergo a series of orderly changes as they grow and develop, including life cycles.
2.5 – Living things are part of a system.
3.4 – Adaptations allow organisms to satisfy life needs and respond to the environment.

Grades K-5: Earth and Space Systems
K.9 – There are patterns in nature.
1.7 – There are weather and seasonal changes.
2.7 – Weather patterns and seasonal changes affect plants, animals, and their surroundings.
4.4 – Weather conditions and climate have effects on ecosystems and can be predicted. 

Grades K-5: Earth Resources
3.8 – Natural events and humans influence ecosystems.
4.8 – Virginia has important natural resources.

Grade 6
6.8 – Land and water have roles in watershed systems, including the Chesapeake Bay estuary. 

Life Science
LS.7 – Adaptations support an organism’s survival in an ecosystem.
LS.8 – Change occurs in ecosystems, communities, populations, and organisms over time.

BIO.8 – Dynamic equilibria exist within populations, communities, and ecosystems. 

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels (* indicates episode listed above in the “Related Water Radio Episodes” section).

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15
– on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15
– on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16
– on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16
– on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
*Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
*Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
*Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
*Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19
– on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.
Episode 524, 5-11-20
– on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.
Episode 531, 6-29-20
– on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.
Episode 539, 8-24-20
– on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.