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Shuffling the Ducks

It’s finally that time of year when winter gets serious here on the Cape. Water actually starts to freeze, even salt water, and the place finally feels shut down for the season. Despite this, it’s also the time of year when birdsong noticeably increases and a few foolish migrants trickle back early, a time when hope and hormones trump the cold. But it’s a different hidden benefit of the deep cold that I’d like to discuss this time – it’s the shuffling of the ducks.

The cold weather indeed makes things a little more interesting for duck aficionados – the freezing of ponds rearranges and concentrates them in open water, often rendering some uncommon waterfowl easier to find and see. Also, typical habitat affinities break down, with freshwater and saltwater ducks mingling freely in whatever water is available.

A good example of this sort of inter-habitat mingling involves the mergansers, three species who typically favor quite different waterbodies year-round. Common Mergansers are not so common around here, but from December onward may occur on a few big ponds like Long Pond in Harwich, where rafts of 400 of these striking diving ducks might be possible. Red-breasted Mergansers are the salt lover of the trio, potentially common on any saltwater body fall through spring. Then there’s the Hooded Merganser, smallest and handsomest of the group - if mergansers were the Monkees, the Hooded would be Davey Jones. They prefer small, wooded ponds year-round. But after a big freeze, there’s a good chance you can find all three species in some open water patch in a big pond or a salt pond.

Some of the more treasured duck finds could be hiding in that mass of Mallards and Black Ducks crowding the open water patch at your local marsh cove or pond, like the elegant Northern Pintail or the colorful, well-schozzed Northern Shoveler. Check for tiny Green-winged Teal at the edges, sized more like a shorebird than a dabbling duck, often the cream and white markings they show fore and aft give just enough contrast to betray their small forms hugging the shore.

A very rare bird is among the ducks people are seeing during this cold spell, a goldeneye x Hooded Merganser hybrid in Frost Fish Creek in Chatham. Even someone competent with all the expected waterfowl on the Cape and Islands would be very confused to see this duck paddle through their binocular view.  Ducks are famous for hybridizing a lot more than other birds, in keeping with their overall loose habits that I’ve covered in other pieces. Mergansers and goldeneye are quite different ducks – mergansers eat fish with thin, serrated bills, goldeneye eat shellfish off the bottom. But both nest in tree cavities, and apparently they have enough else in common to do the deed and produce young.

Maybe the most exciting corollary of the ice over is that Bald Eagles can be easier to watch. They live for this weather - ever shrinking open water patches crowded with increasingly desperate ducks are like bowls of popcorn for eagles, who just stand on the nearby ice picking out the next morsel. This was on full display this week at Lake Wequaquet in Centerville, where local birder Mary Keleher photographed some adult Bald Eagles picking off a raft of a favorite eagle snack, American Coots, one by one. If you watch coots, you’ll notice that they clearly wish they could dive, but their bobber of a body betrays them at each attempt to get to the bottom. This makes them sitting, um, coots when it comes to eagles.

Usually when I write a ducks in winter piece I have some previously reported rarities lined up, but the reality is that duck sightings from the birding community have been a bit thin of late. So I guess that’s where you come in. Find those open water patches and you can be the one to find that shiny new shoveler or whatever. Unless the eagles beat you there, of course.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.