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In This Place

Ducks and Seabirds Aplenty

Ian Preston

‘Tis the season for ducks - January is prime time to grab the mittens (or t-shirt and sunglasses, you never know anymore) and head to your local lakes and ponds to survey the waterfowl scene. At this point in the winter there has been sufficient time for ducks to arrive as ponds to our north and west freeze up. 

The Cape’s assortment of herring run kettle ponds, salt ponds, harbors, marshes, bays, sounds, and open ocean draw a remarkable variety of fowl from around the continent. With milder temperatures, salty water, and various spring fed ponds and marshes, there is always open water somewhere on the Cape and Islands. From the perspective of a waterbird, whether duck or heron or kingfisher, this means they won’t have to go too far during a freeze up, making this archipelago an attractive winter retreat.

This week in the world of ducks brought a couple of oddballs likely returning from last year. First, a male Tufted Duck is back on Long Pond on the Harwich/Brewster border. These handsome diving ducks from Europe are closely related to scaup, with whom they are most often found. When scaup aren’t diving for freshwater mussels and other aquatic treats they are mostly sleeping, so a Tufted Duck can be surprisingly hard to pick out unless you catch their characteristic feathery crest blowing just right in the wind, but also note their darker back and curvier white side panels.

Even weirder is the hybrid duck who has apparently returned for another winter in the Mashpee/Falmouth area. This cross between a Tufted Duck and a scaup of some sort looks pretty much like a Tufted Duck but with a shorter crest and gray, not black back. So far he’s been seen on Perch and Little Ponds in Falmouth, but check anywhere you see scaup.

If you get tired of searching out odd ducks, at least the feathered kind, consider a pilgrimage to Race Point in Provincetown, where the world ends and great seabirding begins. Save yourself that trip to the West Coast by picking out a Pacific Loon off the Race – they are regular here each winter, with up to two or three around recently. While scanning for other sought-after ocean specialties like Iceland Gulls, murres and dovekies, make sure to glance back over the dunes and you have a good chance of seeing a swirling flock of Snow Buntings, white and beige winter visitors from arctic tundra breeding grounds, and one of my favorite birds of this season. Rare and exciting predatory birds in the form of a Northern Shrike and a couple of Short-eared Owls have both been seen hunting the dunes and thickets by the Race this week.

Finally, there’s your feeders. Some days you just don’t want to venture afield, but luckily, surprising, late-lingering species are still turning up at backyard feeding stations. These include a Black-throated Blue Warbler in Wellfleet, a Black-and-white Warbler in Provincetown, and god knows how many Painted Buntings – at least 9 individuals of this colorful southern species have turned up on the Cape over the last two months, shattering previous records. Baltimore Orioles, who are supposed to winter in Central America, are also appearing in yards in seemingly record numbers, taking advantage of heavy fruit crops on cedars this year as well as bird feeders.

You may not have an oriole or a Day-Glo male Painted Bunting in your yard, but as you can see, there’s no excuse to let dust collect on your optics here on Cape Cod, even in deepest winter. So grab that parka and/or shorts and flip flops, and I’ll see you in the field.