Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

“Hunting” Ducks With Binoculars
October 29, 2011
by Steve Grinley

     Autumn brings ducks to New England, and large flocks of scoters and eider have been seen migrating off our coast. Scaup, ruddy ducks and mergansers are arriving on area lakes and reservoirs. Hunting season has begun and it reminds me of a previous column that I will share with you again:

     I always know when duck hunting season starts. No, I’m not a hunter. I use to live on Plum Island. It was always that autumn morning when I am awakened out of a sound sleep by the barrage of gunfire. The first morning it always seems to start extra early, it is usually unexpected and the number of loud bangs seems endless. Groggily, I usually have to remind myself that I’m not waking up in the Mid-East. This year it came from both sides, ocean and river marsh.

     I choose to “hunt” instead with binoculars. I don’t have to wait for the “season” to start. I don’t need a license. And I can usually do it without disturbing the ducks and geese, let alone any humans in the area.

     The brisk fall weather that brings with it the annual migration of ducks and geese has, indeed, arrived. Though many geese winter in Massachusetts, large “V’s” of Canada geese have been making their way south since early October. Snow geese have already been seen in small numbers on Plum Island, on Cape Ann and in other areas of eastern Massachusetts. Brant, a goose similar to the Canada goose but smaller with a neck patch instead of the white “chin strap”, will also be arriving.

     Rafts of dark colored scoters contrast with the white collage of eiders that can be seen moving offshore. Scores of ducks are settling on our lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Most are on their journey further south, but many arrive to spend the winter on our open waters, as long as the waters remain open.

     There are surface feeding ducks known as “dabblers” and there are diving ducks. Many people are more familiar with the dabblers. Mallards, black ducks, pintails, wood duck and teal are some of the surface feeding ducks, often seen with their posterior exposed as they tip in the water to feed. Most of the sea ducks as well as scaup, golden-eye, bufflehead and all the mergansers are diving ducks, completely submerging themselves, swimming under water in search of food.

     Scores of ring-necked and ruddy ducks have already arrived at the Cherry Hill Reservoir in West Newbury along with a few American Widgeon, lesser scaup and American coot. Coot are small, black hen-like ducks with white bills that are fun to watch. Unlike mallards and black ducks that take to flight by just lifting off the water, coot need to run across the water for some distance before they are able to get airborne. This is true of geese and many sea ducks as well, but it always seems extra comical to watch a coot take off. Its chunky body seems too much for its rapidly flapping wings to carry as it runs clumsily along the water, but eventually liftoff does occur.

     Pintail, green-winged teal, shovelers are showing up on the Parker River Refuge. I received a report this past week of 2 male and 2 female hooded mergansers on the refuge. Fairly uncommon, these are one of my favorite ducks, the male with its white crest and striking rust and white markings on its dark body. Its cousin, the more common red-breasted merganser with its “punk haircut” look, frequents our ocean and harbors while the larger, sleek common merganser winters on the Merrimack and other area rivers.

     Soon golden-eyes, oldsquaw, scaup and buffleheads will congregate in larger numbers on our waters. More black ducks, mallards, widgeon and teal will arrive. If you live near a lake, river or by the ocean you should notice an increase in the number of ducks on the water. And, yes, the guns will take a few of them. But if you hunt with binoculars like me, take solace in the fact that your duck hunting season doesn’t end, it will continue all winter long.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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