For the Birds: Ice sends the ducks south

Photo by Chris Bosak
Red-breasted mergansers may be seen throughout winter on the ocean or Long Island Sound.

There are always two ways to look at something.

I don’t remember what it was advertising, but I recall an old television commercial wherein one guy says: “Camping? I hate camping. There’s nobody around.”

The next guy on camera, within the same friend group of the first guy but unaware of what he said, says: “Camping? I love camping. There’s nobody around.”

I guess it all depends on your personal preferences and motives.

I thought of this the other day when I drove by a pond and saw people ice skating on it. I was happy for those people as they got to enjoy a fun winter hobby, but I couldn’t help but think that I would much rather see the pond unfrozen and providing a place for ducks to rest.

As I have mentioned several times before, ducks are my favorite type of bird to watch, and a frozen pond, lake or river isn’t going to have any ducks. To make matters worse, even if the water thaws, the ducks that were previously seen there have likely moved well south only to return in the spring.

No offense to the skaters, hockey players, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and ice anglers, but give me an unfrozen pond any day. I get it. This is New England, and those frozen activities are part of the culture and history of the region. I am happy people get to enjoy their hobbies.

It just makes me think of that commercial and how people can see things differently.

There is a solution, however, for people like me who want to see ducks in the winter. It takes a little more effort, but it is well worth it. Simply head to the ocean or Long Island Sound, which remain unfrozen throughout our New England winter.

For the most part, the ducks will be a little different from the ones we saw on fresh water before the freeze. Wood ducks, ring-necked ducks and common mergansers are not likely to be found on the ocean or sound, for instance.

Replacing those ducks will be species such as eiders, scoters, scaup, long-tailed ducks and red-breasted mergansers. Common and red-throated loons are also likely to be found but will be in their drab winter plumage.

Bufflehead and goldeneye are a few species that may be found in both habitats.

Hooded mergansers, one of the more common ducks found on fresh water before the freeze, are not likely to be found far from shore on the ocean or sound but can be spotted if smaller bodies of water remain open nearby. Brackish tributary rivers or marshes are good places to find hoodies this time of year.

Of course, any open fresh water found in the winter, while other waters are frozen, has the potential to be a gold mine for ducks. A large lake with an open pool in the middle, for instance, is a great place to look for common mergansers, ring-necked ducks and other species. A section of a pond’s edge kept open by a stream or river flowing into it is another potential hot spot.

Nature provides for those wishing for frozen water and those wishing for open water in a New England winter. Sure, it’s cold, but why would anybody want to live anywhere else?

For the Birds: Birding New Year’s resolutions

Photo by Chris Bosak A black duck hides in the grasses near a pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

I dreaded looking it up, but as it turns out, there was nothing to dread.

Let me explain.

There are a handful of regular birding columns that I write every year about this time. One is on Christmas gifts for the birdwatcher, one is about the Christmas Bird Count, one is on my birding highlights of the year, and one is on my New Year’s resolutions for the coming year.

It is the resolution column that I dread looking back on. There are sure to be many failures, and I just hope there are a few successes to go along with it.

I was surprised when I looked up last year’s resolution column. As it turns out, I didn’t write one last year after all. Maybe there was too much going on, maybe I figured I wouldn’t stick to the resolutions anyway, or maybe COVID’s first Christmas had me so down I just couldn’t bring myself to write a forward-thinking, optimistic column.

Well, COVID is still with us and wreaking havoc on another holiday season, but I am not going to let it win this year. So here’s my latest birding New Year’s resolution column.

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For the Birds: It’s duck-watching season

Photo by Chris Bosak A female common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.

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.

Latest For the Birds column: Ducks are finally here

Photo by Chris Bosak Hooded Mergansers swim in a small unfrozen section of water at Selleck's/Dunlap in Darien, Conn., in Feb. 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Hooded Mergansers swim in a small unfrozen section of water at Selleck’s/Dunlap in Darien, Conn., in Feb. 2014.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.

For me, “duck season” starts with the first sighting of something other than a mallard, wood duck or black duck.

This year it started in late August when I saw a lone hooded merganser in the small pond at the end of the trail that runs through my backyard. I’m not sure if it was an early migrating duck or if its territory is nearby, but it certainly marked an early start to duck watching season for me.

Of course, several weeks passed before my next duck sighting, but now it appears that duck season is finally here for real. The weather certainly is fitting for duck season. The other day, I stood on the shores of a lake watching a flock of common mergansers. The temperature was in the low 30s and a whipping, cold wind stung my ears. In other words, things could have been worse.

The “typical” start to duck-watching season goes something like this: The leaves change colors and a few hooded mergansers and ring-necked ducks show up on area lakes and ponds. Large flocks of common mergansers congregate on larger lakes and reservoirs.

As the season progresses, small ponds attract goodies such as green-winged teal, gadwall and American wigeon. Larger lakes attract more and more common mergansers as well as bufflehead and a goldeneye or two.

Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean follow a somewhat predictable schedule as well, with brant showing up rather early, followed by beauties such as common and red-throated loons, grebes, goldeneye, long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers and scaup. Eider are common on the ocean, but not so much on the Sound.

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A few late ducks — and other fowl sightings

Photo by Chris Bosak Horned Grebe at Cove Island Park in Stamford, CT, April 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Horned Grebe at Cove Island Park in Stamford, CT, April 2014.

While watching a small flock of Ruddy Ducks at Cove Island Park in Stamford, CT, a Horned Grebe made an appearance. The grebe was in a transitional plumage and will look quite different a few weeks from now.

Most of our “winter ducks” have flown north already, but some still linger. The Ruddy Ducks were a good sighting and there are still several Red-breasted Mergansers around. Soon, It will be mallards and black ducks for southern New England.

The Ruddy Duck photos are below:

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Some ducks still hanging on in southern New England

Photo by Chris Bosak Greater Scaup in Norwalk Harbor, March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Greater Scaup in Norwalk Harbor, late March 2014.

April, for me anyway, is a bittersweet month for birdwatching. I love watching ducks, so the period from when the “winter ducks” arrive in fall to the time they depart in the spring is perhaps my favorite time of year for birdwatching. Well, that time in spring is approaching. The ducks _ other than mallards and a few others _ will soon depart southern New England for their breeding grounds up north.

The flip side of that, of course, is that the songbirds, shorebirds, birds of prey and other spring migrants will be here soon (if they haven’t arrived already.)

I’ve been seeing fewer and fewer ducks at my normal haunting grounds over the last week or so. Remember my post last week when a Redhead shared a pond with Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks and Wood Ducks? Well, that pond is now vacant. No winter ducks or any other ducks for that matter. I’m sure the mallards and hopefully some Wood Ducks will return. But the other ducks will likely not be seen there for another seven or eight months.

Long Island Sound and its harbors are slowing down, too, but not shutting down. I saw a few Long-tailed Ducks, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Mergansers and Greater Scaup on a recent visit to Norwalk Harbor _ but not in the numbers that I saw them just a few weeks ago. In a few more weeks, only a few straglers will be left _ until next fall, that is.

Wood Ducks not happy with Redhead

Photo by Chris Bosak A Redhead swims alongside a Ring-necked Duck in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Redhead swims alongside a Ring-necked Duck in Darien in March 2014.

In a previous post I mentioned I had seen a Redhead at Spring Grove Cemetery in Darien, Conn. It was the first time I had seen a Redhead at this small pond and it shared the water with Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks, Canada Geese and Mallards.

At one point or another, I saw the Redhead “cross paths” with each of the other kinds of ducks. With one exception, the other ducks and geese basically paid no attention to the Redhead. In fact, at one point it was diving among a small flock of Canada Geese. It resurfaced next to a different goose every time and none of the geese seemed to mind.

It hung around the Ring-necked Ducks quite a bit and my suspicion is that it arrived with those ducks and will likely depart with them as well. Just a guess.

Five Hooded Mergansers passed the Redhead at one point with no drama.

Photo by Chris Bosak A flock of Hooded Mergansers swims past a Redhead at a Darien pond in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A flock of Hooded Mergansers swims past a Redhead at a Darien pond in March 2014.

But the Wood Ducks did not like the Redhead getting too close. The Redhead drifted over from one side and the Wood Ducks from the other. When they got close enough, the male Wood Duck lowered its head and snapped repeatedly at the Redhead. Then the female Wood Duck did the same thing. The Redhead casually drifted away from the Woodies, but apparently not fast enough as the male Wood Duck reacted even more strongly to shoo away the somewhat rare New England visitor.

Fun stuff, this birdwatching hobby.

Photo by Chris Bosak A pair of Wood Ducks show their displeasure with a nearby Redhead in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A pair of Wood Ducks show their displeasure with a nearby Redhead in Darien in March 2014.

Redhead makes surprise visit

Photo by Chris Bosak Redhead seen in Darien pond in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Redhead seen in Darien pond in March 2014.

I drove past the pond at first, assuming nothing of note would be there. But that nagging voice in the back of my head said: “Go back and check. It’ll take five minutes and you’re right here anyway.” I listened to that voice, as I usually do, and it paid off, as it often does.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Redhead swims at a pond in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Redhead swims at a pond in Darien in March 2014.

The pond at Spring Grove Cemetery in Darien is small but often fairly productive. It’s a good place to see Wood Ducks in the fall and spring. Hooded Mergansers are frequent visitors in winter when the water isn’t frozen over. Ring-necked Ducks are occasional visitors. And, of course, Canada Geese and Mallards are usually there.

But one day this week, not only were Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks all there, but a surprise visitor was there as well. Redheads are a beautiful medium-sized duck that are seen occasionally in New England. I’ve seen massive flocks of them in the Midwest, but only a handful of times have I seen them in New England. They are seen sometimes within huge flocks of scaup. But I’ve never seen one in New England at a pond as small as this one. It was interesting to see it among the mergansers and ring-neckeds.

This is a male Redhead. The female is much duller in color, mostly tannish brown.

In a post later this week I’ll let you know how the Redhead seemed to get along with the other ducks in the small pond.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Redhead seen in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Redhead seen in Darien in March 2014.

BirdsofNewEngland’s random bird thought of the day: Ring-necked Ducks

Photo by Chris Bosak Ring-necked Ducks swim at Selleck's/Dunlap Woods in Darien, March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Ring-necked Ducks swim at Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods in Darien, March 2014.

In my last post about getting out there to check out the ducks before they are gone for the summer, I listed a bunch of ducks that winter throughout New England, but breed farther north. I left off that list Ring-necked Duck. It just didn’t come to mind when I was compiling the list. Sure enough, the next day I went out for a quick bird walk and the only ducks I saw were Ring-necked Ducks. I immediately thought: Hey, I don’t think I mentioned Ring-necked Ducks in that last post.

So, finally getting its due, here you have the Ring-necked Duck, a very handsome duck that spends its winters here in New England (and well south, too) and breeds in northern New England and into Canada. As you can see from the photo, a more apt name might be Ring-billed Duck, but the scientists who named it likely had a dead specimen in hand and the ring around its neck — which is difficult to see in the field — was more visible. It took me years to stop calling it Ring-billed Duck, but I eventually got used to it.

Also, as you can see from the photo, the species is sexually dimorphic: the males and females look different. All ducks seen in New England are sexually dimorphic with the males often brilliantly colored and females usually more dull in color.

BirdsofNewEngland’s random bird thought of the day: Seeing ducks

Photo by Chris Bosak Female Hooded Merganaser at Holly Pond in Stamford, CT, Nov. 2013.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Female Hooded Merganaser at Holly Pond in Stamford, CT, Nov. 2013.

Our winter ducks will remain with us for only a few more weeks so be sure to check out your local watering holes for these birds before they are gone.
Some ducks, of course, will remain with us all summer and breed locally, but most of the ducks we have on our waters now will head far north of here shortly. Depending on what part of New England we are talking about, Mallards may be the only duck we see in the summer – with perhaps the occasional tucked away pond holding Wood Ducks. The farther north you go in New England the more duck species there will be.
So get out there and enjoy the mergansers, scaup, grebes, teal, Long-tailed Ducks, Buffleheads and Goldeneye while you can. We won’t see them again until the fall.