As we start to move into the colder months, many birds of Shelter Island migrate south. Yet some species stay even while others are beginning to arrive, brightening up our daily lives in the colder months. These birds are popular for watching, tracking, and hunting; welcome to winter duck season.
New York State has many different species of winter ducks. The ducks we see begin to migrate down from points north and Canada in the late fall. They leave their summer breeding grounds as food begins to deplete in the harsh weather conditions. Migrating south, they stay along coasts.
Two familiar species are bufflehead ducks and long-tailed ducks. Buffleheads, aka butterballs, are small black-and-white ducks that often are found on sheltered ponds and creeks. Small active groups dive for food, bobbing to the surface like corks.
Long-tailed ducks are strong swimmers and active divers. Often found in large, vocal rafts in our bays, they can dive quite deep, feeding on mussels and other marine invertebrates.
During early winter, both species begin their entertaining courtships, with the more intensive behavior occurring during the spring. Like other migratory birds, winter ducks may be vulnerable to climate change. Warming temperatures may interfere with their food sources and with their ability to find suitable habitat at both ends of their ranges.
We are lucky that these two kinds of winter ducks are relatively common on Shelter Island; keep an eye out when you are on the ferry or venturing out near Sanctuary Pond and Log Cabin Creek.
If you would like to document the birds you see, remember to use the iNaturalist app.
You can contribute to the Shelter Island Fall BioBlitz project.