Posted March 24, 2020
Written by Mike Perrin
As I stare across the water, looking directly into chilly gusts of wind, my fingers go numb and tears begin to stream down my face. My rosy-red nose runs, my toes lose feeling, and the sand piles in my hiking boots. Despite these unpleasantries, I cannot turn away from the wind. The black specks diving and bobbing up and down in the waves have my full attention. As a birder, the frozen appendages, cold tears, and arrival of sea-ducks denote the start of winter.
For the past four years, I have been studying environment and wildlife biology in Vermont. Lake Champlain hosts a great variety of wintering ducks, but nothing beats the salty spray of the ocean. I am now serving as the Land Stewardship Coordinator AmeriCorps-TerraCorps Member for Wareham Land Trust, and, as the humans flock to Florida from Wareham and the ducks occupy ponds and shorelines, I was eager for my first winter in Wareham.
If one can tolerate the cold temperatures and strong winds, they will be rewarded with the joys of winter waterfowl arriving from bone-chilling northern Canada to spend their non-breeding season in the warmer Wareham environment (some species even make the trip from the arctic tundra!). The elaborate color patterns, whimsical behaviors, and impressive and surprising diversity of these wintering ducks brings me warmth during the chilly season. The abandoned, empty beaches provide a breath-taking setting for birdwatching. But, one does not need to go far, walk on sand, or even brace the wind off the ocean to appreciate these winter friends. The salt ponds, rivers, and any unfrozen body of water provide an incredible opportunity to admire and learn about ducks and waterfowl.
Right in downtown Wareham, behind the Wareham Land Trust office, the Wareham River houses a smorgasboard of waterfowl. There are some commonly-known species like the numerous Canada Goose, Mute Swan, and Mallard that may be written-off as boring. Although common, a closer look at a Mallard will reveal a gleaming coat of green and purple never before seen. There are also sweet treats brought by the winter season, including my personal favorite duck species: Bufflehead, a tiny, charismatic black and white duck with a delightful purple-green iridescence only seen in certain lights. Mallards and Buffleheads are both duck species, but are broken into different categories based on feeding style: dabbling or diving. Mallards are “dabbling ducks,” sticking their bills straight down into the mud to forage on seeds and aquatic plants. Buffleheads are “diving ducks,” diving below the surface of the water in pursuit of aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, and mollusks. Other dabblers include American Black Ducks, American Wigeon, and Gadwall and other divers include Common Eider, scoters, and mergansers.
Over the past few months, I was constantly surprised by the many species of winter visitors in the short span of river behind the office. The pure white Mute Swans always grabbed my attention first, with their slender necks and graceful movements. I often counted the numbers of Canada Geese, scanning the flock for any unexpected goose species mixed in; no surprises in the flock this winter. Buffleheads, little black and white dots, dove underwater then resurfaced with such force they nearly jumped into the air. Along the edge of the marsh, I would often see a line of ducks slowly gliding along the water; the use of binoculars uncovered a small flock of American Black Ducks or of Hooded Mergansers, or ‘hoodies.’ The male hoodie, with its chestnut breast and white crown, would lead the and the females follow closely behind with their spikey, punk-rock hairdos. Gadwall also frequented the river, showing their brownish, grayish, mottled backs and and jet-black rumps. These ducks winter in big numbers in Wareham, but remains less known compared to other species. To my surprise, a flock of stunning Long-tailed Ducks wound up near the Narrows! Mostly adult and immature males, these ducks showed an incredible contrast of a snow white face, and a long, protruding black tail that provides the species namesake. I have only ever seen these ducks in the open ocean or in harbors, including the Onset Pier, so this was an exciting find for me. Other frequent species visiting the marsh included Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneyes, Lesser Scaup, and Common Loon. With so many species of both dabbling and diving ducks, we can assume that this stretch of the Wareham River is full of crabs, shellfish, and aquatic plants, making it optimum foraging habitat for many of our feathered friends.
Looking to the sky, Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls circled overhead. Like me, the gulls are watching the ducks, but they are using them for tips on food locations. A Red-tailed Hawk swoops overhead, causing commotion and unrest on the river. A hawk will try for a duck and will sometimes be successful, but the real threat to the ducks are the Bald Eagles. As many Wareham residents will tell you, the population of eagles is steadily rising in town. A welcome and celebrated observation by us, but a daunting reality for the ducks.
As I get back to my car, I am thankful for the winter ducks that make birding a year-round hobby. I am thankful for the tears and tingly fingers. I am thankful for the little yet lively downtown of Wareham and the diversity of birds seen on the river. And I am thankful that I can sit in my car and see all these wintering friends while heat blasts against my face—but where is the fun in that?
By Mike Perrin, Wareham Land Trust TerraCorps Land Stewardship Coordinator
To learn more about waterfowl in Wareham, contact Mike Perrin at Stewardship@WarehamLandTrust.org. Safely get outside and scan the water and shoreline—you may find a fascination in ducks that will connect you to the ecology and phenology of our wonderful town!