It was a gray day that turned into a snowy day that turned into a misty, gray day. The weather never fails to be part of the story of a Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in New England. Yesterday (Sunday) was the annual CBC in my area and, as usual, I covered the Norwalk (Conn.) coastline and parts inland with Frank Mantlik, one of Connecticut”s top birders. We tallied 61 species, which will be combined with the other birds spotted by the Count’s other teams. Highlights included northern shoveler, northern pintail, prairie warbler, pine warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, northern harrier, merlin and horned lark. Full story coming in my For the Birds column. In the meantime, here’s what the Christmas Bird Count is all about.
The recent stretch of beautiful weather aside, November can be a tough month for birdwatchers.
Frigid temperatures, cold rain and even some snow has many of us longing for the more pleasing fall weather of September and October. Most of the migrants, such as hawks and songbirds, are gone by November. The last of the leaves have fallen off the trees, except for a few hangers-on, erasing most of the color from the landscape. With most of the flowers long gone too, brownish-gray tree trunks and dark green foliage of evergreens dominate the landscape.
Birders, however, are eternal optimists and always find bright spots. For me, November means that the waterfowl migration has begun in earnest. It starts slowly in October and hits its stride in November. Ducks, as I have written for years, are my favorite type of bird to watch, so I never dread November.
My first duck migration sighting of the year came a few weeks ago when I spotted four male hooded mergansers swimming away from the shoreline as I approached a neighborhood pond. It was a beautiful thing to see and the first of many similar sightings that will occur for the next several months.
I received an email last week from Amy, who wrote that she had seen a flock of more than 70 common mergansers on Childs Bog in Harrisville.
Common mergansers often form huge flocks and may be seen throughout late fall and winter on our lakes and large ponds. Smaller flocks and individual mergansers are often seen as well, including on smaller ponds and rivers.
The merganser family, which also includes the red-breasted merganser, is an interesting family to study in New England. They are divers, meaning they dive underwater for their food as opposed to dabbling, and they have serrated bills to keep the food from slipping away as they surface.
Mergansers, especially common mergansers, are extremely wary, at least in my experience. Occasionally, I have come across a slightly less timid hooded merganser, but I have yet to find a common merganser that is not ultra-wary.
Of course, the merganser family just scratches the surface of all the ducks we will see passing through New England for the next several months. Bodies of fresh water will attract a different variety than salt water. There are some species that will readily go to fresh, brackish or salt water, but many species have a preference. Loons are interesting in that they breed on large freshwater bodies of water but are mostly found on salt or brackish water in the winter. Long Island Sound off the coast of Rhode Island and Connecticut is an excellent place to find common and red-throated loons in the winter. They are not the flashy birds that they are in the summer but rather a much more dull-colored version of themselves. They are still a thrill to see regardless of what plumage they are sporting.
With the duck season just picking up pace now, there will be plenty to write about in the next several months. I look forward to sharing my experiences. As always, feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you are seeing as well.
I have written extensively about the recent study that shows bird populations in North America have dropped by 29 percent over the last 50 years. While the news overall is concerning, the study did reveal some bright spots.
One piece of good news is that ducks appear to be increasing. Waterfowl are a favorite bird type of mine so this news was heartening. Give me a cool late autumn day, a large pond, a spotting scope and ducks swimming all around, and I’m as happy as a lark.
The duck population increase, in large part, is credited to wetland conservation efforts, much of which was and continues to be paid for by hunters. While this has worked exceptionally well for ducks, it hasn’t worked out quite as well for rails and other marsh birds. There is still work to be done in that area.
But let’s stay positive for this column. Preserving wetlands has led to increased duck numbers. No one can say more ducks is a bad thing.
It also stresses the importance of land conservation as a powerful tool in preserving our birds and other animals. While hunters, through the purchase of stamps and other fees, have contributed mightily to this effort, conserving land is something easily done by anyone. Support your local land trust or other conservation organization Continue reading
When I posted last week about “Merganser mania,” I had photos of all three mergansers that occur in New England. I had males and females represented, with the lone exception of female common merganser. Well, I happened upon this lady the other day and figured I’d complete the circle. I’ve added her to the original post, which may be found here.
Last week, I wrote about seeing three common mergansers on a small pond by a busy shopping mall. Mergansers are typically wary and I was surprised to see the fowl there.
The next day, I drove past Candlewood Lake — a large man-made body of water in southwestern Connecticut — and saw literally thousands upon thousands of common mergansers. The lake was still about half frozen and many of the unfrozen portions were covered with mergansers. Some of the mergansers used the icy edges as a resting spot; others swam in the rippling water.
That setting seemed to me to be a more appropriate spot for common mergansers than the mall-area one. It got me to thinking about the merganser family and their water preferences.
We have three types of mergansers in New England: common, hooded and red-breasted. Generally speaking, they all have different water preferences.
Common mergansers are usually spotted on large, freshwater lakes and rivers. Hooded mergansers favor smaller bodies of water and may be found on fresh or brackish water. Red-breasted mergansers may be found on large bodies of fresh, brackish or salt water.
I have yet to see all three mergansers sharing a common body of water, but I have seen hooded and commons together, and hooded and red-breasted mergansers together. All three are generally wary in nature. From my own observations, I find the common to be the most wary and hooded the most brave.
The hooded merganser is the oddball among them in terms of appearance. They are small ducks and the males are handsomely adorned with pewter sides, black backs and black-and-white heads and chests. Their heads are usually fanned to display a large white patch, but can also be flatted to show just a sliver of white. Female hoodeds are similar in size to the male but are duller in color and design.
Male common and red-breasted mergansers are similar in general appearance with dark green heads, red bills, large white bodies and black backs. There are obvious differences between them, too. The common is much larger and smoother looking. Red-breasted merganser males have spiky “haircuts,” light red breasts and slightly darker sides.
The females are slightly more difficult to differentiate. Female commons are larger, brighter and have a dark rusty head with a funky haircut. Female red-breasted mergansers have a funky haircut, too, but are smaller, darker and have duller, brownish heads.
All three merganser varieties have serrated bills for holding onto fish and other wiggly prey. Those bills have earned the family the nickname sawbill.
Ducks are one of my favorite types of birds to watch and mergansers are my favorite family of fowl. So far the spring migration has been a merganser bonanza. I hope it continues.
I haven’t written about ducks in a long time. I used to write about them often because waterfowl are arguably my favorite type of bird to watch.
My budding interest in birdwatching became an obsession when I discovered a huge flock of common mergansers on Powder Mill Pond. The number of birds in the flock and the birds’ size and beauty fascinated me. I can’t believe that happened back in the 1990s. Time sure flies.
I’ve been a huge fan of ducks, especially mergansers, ever since. I have canoed hundreds of miles, spent hours behind blinds in swampy areas, and stood on many shorelines with my eye pressed against a spotting scope in search of ducks.
But for whatever reason, I just haven’t written about ducks lately. I guess none of my recent waterfowl experiences have captivated me enough to do so.
That is until the other day, when I saw a few common mergansers in a very unlikely place. Common mergansers typically favor large freshwater bodies, such as lakes, large ponds or wide rivers. Every so often, however, they may be spotted on much smaller bodies of water.
Not only was my recent sighting on a very small body of water, not even big enough to be considered a pond, but it was also in the shadow of a bustling shopping mall.
Danbury Fair is a mall in western Connecticut. It has a large, inaccessible marshy area behind it and a few very small ponds, if you can call them that, on the sides and in the front. It is a highly developed area, so a variety of wildlife does not thrive there.
It is, however, a fairly reliable place to spot birds such as great blue herons, belted kingfishers, mute swans, Canada geese, American and fish crows, and, of course, mallards. During spring and fall migration times some surprises can show up, which is what keeps me coming back to the spot, even for just a quick loop.
In the few years I have been drive-by birding at the mall, I have seen the aforementioned common species, as well as northern pintail, pied-billed grebes and hooded mergansers.
I associate common mergansers with more wild areas, so I was surprised to see two males and one female swimming in one of these tiny ponds with a steady stream of cars driving by on both sides. Two male hooded mergansers and a few mallards shared the pond.
I found a safe place to pull over in my car and checked out the scene through an open passenger’s side window. I grabbed a few quick photos but the ducks slowly swam away in the opposite direction and did not seem comfortable with the stopped car by the pond.
Common mergansers, I’ve discovered over the years, are quite wary and not at all tolerant of any perceived threat. I didn’t want to further stress them during migration so I quickly pulled out and joined the flow of moving cars.
It had been several years since I had seen common mergansers so close. I find them to be the most wary of New England’s three merganser varieties.
Breaking down the merganser varieties requires its own column because they are so different in many ways, but they also share some similarities. I guess you know what next week’s column will be about.
It sure is nice to be writing about ducks again.
Yes, you read that right. I saw a common merganser at Danbury Fair mall the other day. It wasn’t walking the hallways looking for the latest fashions, but it was swimming in a very small pond near the entrance to the mall. Common mergansers are usually seen on large lakes or rivers, but this guy was in a tiny pond in a highly developed area — not common for common mergansers. The next day there were two males and one female common merganser in the pond. These large, handsome ducks are among my favorites and have been for a long time. More on that coming up in the next few days.
Anything can happen during migration periods. Keep your eyes open and let me know what you see out there.
Here is the latest For the Birds column.
I decided to stick to the woods behind my house for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I could have gone off to some nearby birding hot spot to try to log more birds, but I decided to stay put and “bird my patch.”
The action was fairly slow but not terribly so. I didn’t find any out-of-the-ordinary species, but I did get a lot of the common ones. I got my chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers and American goldfinches. A small flock of pine siskins came to the backyard just as I was wrapping things up. I was glad it arrived for the count as this bird has been a regular visitor all winter.
The highlight of the count for me was checking out the beaver pond at the end of the trail that begins behind my house. The pond was mostly frozen, probably about 85 percent so, but the open water that did exist on the far edge held a lone male hooded merganser and nine ring-necked ducks.
Did I say nine? I meant to say 12. No, make that 13. When getting a precise number of birds is important, such as when doing a bird census like the Great Backyard Bird Count, it is important to check and double check the diving ducks.
When I first looked at the ring-necked ducks, I counted nine. I moved along the edge of the pond to change my angle and suddenly I counted 12. I watched for another minute and another duck popped up its head to make 13. I watched carefully for another couple minutes and the number stayed at 13.
Ring-necked ducks are one of the more common diving ducks we see in New England during the winter. Diving ducks are the ones that, true to the description, dive underwater for their prey such as fish and crustaceans. The other types of ducks are dabblers and they simply tip up and stick their heads in the water in their search for food.
Most of our very common ducks are dabblers. Mallards, black ducks, wood ducks and teal are all dabblers. The divers include species such as the mergansers, bufflehead, goldeneye, and, as mentioned, ring-necked ducks.
Dabblers are sometimes difficult to count because there can be so many of them they tend to crowd each other out. But at least you can always see them. They don’t “disappear” underwater.
When you approach a pond and see a flock of divers, you never know whether you are looking at all of them or not. Not that it would have made a whole lot of difference in the grand scheme of things if I had submitted 12 ring-necked ducks, or even my original count of nine, for that matter. But, of course, I was trying to be as accurate as possible so I’m glad I was able to submit the correct number.
All in all, it was a fun count with a decent number of species. How did you do? Feel free to send me an email and let me know.
For more information and international results of the Great Backyard Bird Count, click here.
Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers …
Each month brings its own gifts for birdwatchers.
November brings ducks in large numbers to our ponds, lakes and rivers. If December is kind, weather-wise, that continues. If December is cold and frosty, which it often is, those bodies of freshwater freeze and the ducks head farther south.
This year, November has been colder than usual; many of these waters are frozen already, threatening to spoil the “winter duck” fun early. A quick thaw can bring the ducks back, but an extended freeze will push the ducks away until early next spring.
When the inland waters freeze, New England birdwatchers still have the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound to get their duck fix. But even that falls short in some regards. While there are some duck species that may be found in fresh or saltwater, most are an either-or proposition.
When the freeze takes over, New England can pretty much say goodbye to species such as wood duck, common merganser, ring-necked duck, green-winged teal and gadwall. Other freshwater specialty species — such as pintail and shoveler — are also south-bounfd following a deep freeze.
I was lucky to spot one of these specialty species the other day while checking out an old haunt of mine in southwestern Connecticut. I scanned 14-Acre Pond in Norwalk and noticed a good number of gadwall, a few ring-necked ducks, a pair of mute swans, and many mallards, domesticated ducks and Canada geese. The domesticated ducks were a surprise. I had never noticed them before when I used to frequent the pond.
One duck stood out among the rest, however. The large white patches that sandwich its otherwise rusty side stood out like a beacon. Even though Continue reading
Here’s a quick video I put together on the northern shoveler drake that I featured in a few posts last week. Feel free to subscribe to my YouTube channel, which I hope to populate with more videos in the coming months. It already has several older videos I posted over the years.
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Oh, here’s that shoveler video …