Outdoors Column: It was a winter for waterfowl watching

JASON SHIELDS PHOTO

We saw bushes begin to bud and flower stems push through the soil, some of them even producing petals, during the extremely mild winter. Despite those premature signs of foliation, the trees and shrubs are still largely bare. I always grieved the seasonal denuding of our shrubs and timber. It came to be a psychological trigger, a precursor of cabin fever, cold, biting weather, gloomy, short days and the other unpleasant aspects associated with winter.

However, when chance gives us a mild winter like this past one, our prospects for enjoying the outdoors are greatly enhanced. The big boots and snowsuits stay in the closet, the heavy gloves and trapper hats sit on the shelf. You don’t have to shovel your way out of the house or use a probe to find your car in the snowdrifts.

There’s no ice on the paths, no mounds of plowed snow on the roadsides and the creeks and bays don’t resemble glacial plateaus. In fact, the waterways are teeming with fowl and the beaches that last winter had been strewn with jagged, heaped up floes are clean and clear, allowing for easy hiking.

We had more sunny clear days this winter than any in recent memory ­— ideal conditions for spotting the numerous species of aquatic birds in our area. At the beginning of spring, the plumage is vibrant (especially in males) and makes species identification that much easier.

One of our most recognizable ducks is the red-breasted merganser. They are long slender birds that congregate in small pods, usually no larger than six to 10 individuals. Mature males have a long, slim red beak and a dark green head with pointy feathers jutting from the back (picture a punk rocker’s spiked Mohawk). The male’s red breast, black and white back and grey flanks are visible when it’s swimming. The female, as with all the ducks around here, is much less colorful. She has a frizzy rust-brown head and grey body. Mergansers are less cautious than most ducks and frequently feed close to shore, which makes them an ideal target for bird watchers.

You can see some odd behavior from the drakes as they perform mating displays and shoo away rival males.

Another diving duck in the area is the greater scaup. Members of this species travel in large flocks and tend to stay in tight rafts as they paddle around the bays and dive to the bottom to feed on mollusks and vegetation. I recently saw a raft of at least 200 birds in a local harbor and marveled at the sharp contrasts in the coloring of the males. Touting a more conventional profile than the mergansers, scaup sport a rounded, smooth head. The drake’s is dark, seated atop a well-defined black breast, mottled grey wings and snow white flanks. Their dark rear ends are punctuated by grayish tail feathers. The hens also have blue bills with a white patch above the bridge. Their heads are brown and their bodies are a lighter hue of brown marbled with off-white veins. They are tireless divers and it’s entertaining to watch a group submerge in shifts and systematically cover large areas of the bay bottom. Most notable on these birds is the pale blue bill and the yellow eyes. They go by several other names including bluebill and broadbill. Scaup are wary and typically don’t hug the shoreline like mergansers, so if you want to enjoy these birds, you’ll need binoculars.

Scaup are graceful fliers and alight smoothly, unlike another duck common to this area, the long-tailed duck. Watch these swift fliers dart around the bay, dip their wings to turn on a dime, flare their flaps to catch the wind as they lower their webbed feet and abruptly belly flop into the water. Their clunky, splashing landings are unmistakable. But what the long-tailed duck lacks in landing prowess, it more than makes up for with its artistic markings and majestic darning needle-like tail feathers. Growing up, I followed the men I hunted with in calling these ducks “old squaws,” but that moniker is no longer acceptable for obvious reasons. However, any objective PC adjudicator would admit the distinctive vocalizations of these birds imaginably resemble the cacophony one might hear when rumormongers shout the latest buzz across their backyards.

These ducks molt three times a year, not twice a year like all other species, and although they are in breeding plumage in winter, they revert to their “basic” or non-breeding plumage in the spring before breeding takes place. Lucky for us we get to see them when they are in full regalia. The male’s black beak is divided by a wedge of orange and his head turns from light grey around the eyes to white at the crest and back of the neck. Black patches separate the grey and white on both sides of the lower head and the upper breast and back are ringed in white. Lower down the back, a black “T” stands between white shoulders and ends in the long pintails. Although the long-tailed duck’s markings are not as multi-hued as the merganser’s or puddle ducks like teal and wood duck, their color breaks are extraordinary.

Next time you take a drive to the water, bring your binoculars and look for these and other waterfowl in our bays. And, if you’re really lucky, you also might spot a pod of dolphins like the large group spotted last month from a North Ferry boat (an observer estimated the number to be close to a hundred). I was told the dolphins swam as far west as Jenning’s Point off Shelter Island before turning and heading back through the channel to Gardiners Bay. Although this pod seemed healthy and in no danger of losing its orientation, a pod of about 30 dolphins in Northwest Harbor off the South Fork had would-be rescuers worried as the mammals showed signs of distress; two had died.

Also, check the exposed rocks when the tide is low and you may spot a seal or two basking in the sun.

Let’s hope we have many more mild winters to enjoy in the years ahead.

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