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Nature Notes: Winter Waterfowl

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 15:55

There is another Long Island bird count that follows on the heels of the annual longstanding Christmas count. It’s the winter waterfowl count that happens at about this time every year. For the past several years, Frank Quevedo, executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton, has been organizing it and publishing the results on a spreadsheet. This year near the end of January, he and his parties, comprising 17 skilled waterfowl counters, counted the ducks, swans, geese, grebes, and loons between Montauk Point and the Shinnecock Canal. Other groups counted most of the remainder of Long Island’s waterfowl.

It’s been a warm winter thus far, with hardly a bucketful of snow, and so the waters observed — fresh, salty, and marine — were mostly unfrozen and observers didn’t have to continually brush the precipitation off their binoculars and scopes. There were a few surprises and a few misses, but all in all it was a fairly productive count. Notable among the misses were brant, blue and green-winged teal, redhead, pintail, shoveler, and great cormorant.

As usual, some species that were uncommon in the mid-1900s, when I was a boy, have rebounded to great heights. These include the Canada goose, which was found in seven of the eight territories for a total of 7,539. Another waterfowl that was almost unheard of locally in the 1950s is the mallard, 1,072 of which turned up in seven territories. The elegant mute swan, or “estate swan,” which was imported from Europe and has been around since the late 1800s, topped out at 454 and was found in all nine territories. If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York Audubon Society had had their way a couple of years ago, there would be none, as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was poised to do them in statewide.

A species as common as the common harbor seal, which is apparently undaunted by global warming and is spreading its range southward, is the common eider duck, the supplier of soft feathers for the old pillow-manufacturing industry. It was found in four of the territories examined, amounting to a total of 3,302 specimens. The most sought-after and most hunted eastern duck on Long Island in the 1950s was the black duck. In the 2000s it has lost some of its stature. While it was seen in seven of nine territories, only 209 were spotted; five times as many mallards turned up. The gadwall is a freshwater duck that has the coloration of a female mallard, only grayer. It breeds locally on occasion. Forty-six were counted at three locations.

The mallards and black ducks are rarely found out in the ocean or the sound, except when more inland waters freeze over. There are at least seven local species of “sea” ducks, ducks that don’t mind the foul weather accompanying offshore life. These are the aforementioned eiders, the three scoters, long-tailed ducks, and goldeneyes and buffleheads. The scoters are, perhaps, the most difficult to tell apart. I used to think that the white-winged scoter was the most common of the three, but in this count black scoters at 898 were almost twice as common as the other two lumped together. Most duck hunters refer to scoters as “coots,” maybe because of the confusion in telling them apart.

Such confusion was apparent in this count, as the number of confusing scoters seen, not relegated to specific species, amounted to 1,578, or 214 more than those identified by specific species. There is a special recipe for cooking coots: Attach them to a board, cook in a hot oven, when done, discard the coot and eat the board!

One can tell the goldeneye by the whistling sound of its rhythmic wing beats as it flies in small flocks close to the water’s surface. Duck hunters know them as “whistlers.” The long-tailed duck used to be called the “old squaw.”

There are three species of mergansers — hooded, common, and red-breasted. One can generally find the common and the hooded ones in fresh water, say in East Hampton Village’s Hook Pond, while the red-breasted is always the most common in local waters and does well in fresh, brackish, or seawater. The red-breasted ones totaled 726, while there were 384 hoodies, and only 18 commons. Mergansers have long, sharp pointed serrated beaks for grasping and holding onto baitfish. Mallards, black ducks, and geese are mostly granivorous, meaning they feed on grain, while scoters are omnivorous.

The old squaw’s high-pitched three-syllable call is distinctive, nothing like the flat “quack, quack” of the mallard or black duck. They say the canvasback is the fastest in flight, the teal the most maneuverable and hardest to hit with a shotgun in flight.

The most elegant ducks of all our natives are the fancifully colored wood duck and harlequin. The scaups, or “bluebills,” are abundant in the Great South Bay and local inlets and ponds, both fresh and saltwater. They can be confused with the ring-neck duck, which is generally found in fresh water. Greater scaups have invariably outnumbered the lesser scaups. To wit, 662 of the former were counted compared to 44 of the latter. There were 66 ring-necked ducks counted, a relatively high number for this species.

Counters tallied 22 American wigeon, a duck the size of a mallard that invariably shows up in Hook Pond each winter, many times in the company of tundra swans.

Maybe my favorite duck of all is the bufflehead, or “butterball.” It is as small as a ruddy duck or teal, but is an excellent diver and can be found in creeks and ponds. Locally, Sag Harbor Cove is a good place to see it. After the mallard and Canada goose, it may have the most stable population locally. The counters tallied 336 of them at seven sites.

Finally we have the fish-eating loons, four species of grebes, and the migratory double-crested cormorants. The common loon is well known. It breeds in freshwater lakes throughout northern New York and the New England states and winters along our seaboard, dives for minutes at a time, and, like grebes, is protected from gunners. The other loon species is the red-throated loon, 22 of which were seen. It prefers the ocean, while the common loon — 146 of which were counted — likes bays, harbors, and other saltwater bodies. Although it breeds in freshwater habitats, one rarely finds it in fresh ponds or lakes here. The horned grebe is the common saltwater grebe, while the less common pied-bill grebe generally prefers fresh water. Seventy-six of the former showed up, compared to only four of the latter.

Double crested-cormorants started breeding on Gardiner’s Island before the turn of the century and are the bane of the local fishermen. You find them in the spring, summer, and early fall lined up on the edges of fish traps and floating aquaculture rafts. They have long hooked beaks perfected over thousands and thousands of years for fishing. Their numbers have been swelling locally during the last 50 years and they have started to nest in treetops. You see them standing with wings half outstretched. Unlike most other water birds, they need to dry their wings after periods of diving. The 38 counted this time around suggests a mild winter, as almost all migrate south when it gets cold. In this count there were no great cormorants, an occasional import from northern Europe most likely to be seen on the north Montauk breakwaters during the winter.

Altogether, at least 32 species of waterfowl were counted.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at [email protected].

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