Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Waterfowl on the Move This Season
October 31, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     Autumn is duck season in the Northeast. This is the time of the year that the numbers of ducks increase as migrants stop over on our rivers, lakes, ponds and ocean. Some of the wintering ducks are also starting to arrive along the coast to remain through the more frigid weather.

     One of the easier places to observe ducks is on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. In addition to the summer resident black ducks, mallards and gadwall, you can now observe American wigeon, green-winged and blue-winged teal, northern pintail and northern shovelers in the Salt Pannes, in Bill Forward Pool, or at Stage Island Pool. An uncommon Eurasian wigeon, sporting a rufous colored head, has joined the flock of American wigeon in the Salt Pannes and a wood duck was seen recently from the North Pool overlook.

     All of these ducks are considered dabblers – mainly fresh water ducks that feed from the surface of the water. They are often seen tipping in the water, submerging their head and leaving their tail sticking up as they try to reach vegetation below the surface. 

     While looking for ducks on Plum Island, keep an eye out for one or two pied-billed grebes that have been seen in recent weeks in the Salt Pannes and in Bill Forward Pool. A single brant, a member of the goose family, and a few cormorants have also been in the Salt Pannes with the ducks.

     Along with the dabbling ducks, some diving duck species such as ruddy ducks and scaup may be found at Stage Island. Hooded and red-breasted mergansers, also diving ducks, are also present on the island. Small flocks of long-tailed ducks are arriving off the coast and in Newburyport harbor.

     Many species of diving ducks can be found on ponds and reservoirs throughout our area. Flocks of ring-necked ducks, along with ruddy ducks, common and red-breasted mergansers, can be found on Cherry Hill Reservoir in West Newbury. Johnson’s Pond, on the Groveland-Boxford line, has been hosting ring-necked ducks, greater and lesser scaup, American wigeon, ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers and American coot. We saw half a dozen pied-billed grebes there recently as well.

     Off the coast of Plum Island and Salisbury, there have been growing numbers of the larger sea ducks: common eiders and the three species of scoters. Hundreds of common eider are being seen along Emerson Rocks and Bar Head on Plum Island and a large raft of eiders usually present just off the jetty at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation. Hundreds of white-winged, surf, and black scoters were counted this week off Plum Island from the platform at Lot 7. 

     In addition to the ducks, large numbers of common and red-throated loons have arrived this past week off our beaches. Almost a hundred red-throated loons, many of them not very far offshore, have outnumbered the common loons lately. Most of these birds will migrate through, but many will winter off our coast. In addition, red-necked grebes and the smaller horned grebes are showing up in small numbers off Plum Island this week. Even a razorbill, a winter alcid, has already been spotted off Plum Island – and it is only October!

     As you watch the ducks and loons on the ocean, you may be lucky enough to catch a “feeding frenzy” where a large number of ducks, loons, gulls and cormorants congregate to feed on a school of fish. These birds are constantly diving for food, and sometimes this occurs close to shore where you can get great looks at all these birds. If it is a little further offshore, some gannets may be in the mix and they are spectacular to watch as they dive from great heights and plunge into the water after fish.

     The other spectacle that you can’t help but notice on these fall days along the coast is the strings of migrating cormorants across the sky. Hundreds upon hundreds of double-crested cormorants are heading south. Unlike geese that migrate in “V” formations, the cormorants move in a less organized pattern, sometimes in a broken “V” but mostly in loose rows, with often one or two stragglers. These cormorants with be replaced by smaller numbers of the larger great cormorants who will migrate here from further north to stay for the winter.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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