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In This Place

The waterfowl census results are (mostly) in

Veit Irtenkauf
CC BY-ND 2.0

Though the 38th annual Cape Cod Waterfowl Census was just this past weekend, we already have a good idea of the results thanks to diligent data entry by the volunteers. And the result, I am happy to announce, is that we do in fact have waterfowl here on Cape Cod! You never know, so it’s always good to check.

If you’re looking for a slightly finer-grained analysis of the results than that, well, you’ve come to the right place. So far, with some precincts not reporting, Cape Cod Bird Club’s volunteers have tallied 30 species of waterfowl on our freshwater ponds, which includes 22 species of ducks, 2 geese, 2 loons, 2 grebes, plus Mute Swan and coot. That’s American Coot — I know some self-described “old coots”, but they don’t get counted, mainly because they don’t like when you look through their windows with binoculars.

Each year I cover the 13 ponds of Eastham, which I surveyed on Saturday. My first stop was a small, obscure pond surrounded by private property — I access it from one of those little cottage colonies that goes dormant for the winter. Part of the fun (and frustration) of the survey is finding viewing spots for the ponds completely rimmed with yards and or dense woods.

This pond always has dozens of Hooded Mergansers and assorted Mallards and black ducks, but this year a handsome male Northern Pintail was paddling amongst the others. Pintail are splendid and uncommon, making them a prize find for the fowl counter. With his elegant shape, long-pointed tail, and crisp brown, black, and gray plumage, a male pintail seems almost foppish, like he might wear spats and could pull off a monocle.

At one of my next ponds the ducks all few before I could even lift my binoculars, but luckily I was able to pick out the tiny form of a Green-winged Teal embedded within the fleeing Mallards. I don’t get one of these miniature ducks in my area every year, so this was a score. Another pond held a surprise Black Scoter, normally a sea duck, along with my only coot of the day and a little group of Pied-billed Grebes, charming, hard to see little brown jobs of ponds and marshes. This grebe’s most famous parlor trick is that they can disappear straight down into the water like a submarine, rather than dive forward like other birds have to do.

As we dutifully tally the common species, we all hope to be rewarded with some fancier finds. Some lucky observers set the record for most Wood Ducks ever seen on the entire survey with 54, all on a single pond in West Barnstable, along with three hard to find Blue-winged Teal. Others found a few scarce, big-schnozzed ducks called Northern Shovelers in Orleans, and someone in Falmouth turned up the counts only Redhead, a smart-looking relative of the scaup.

It’s not just about the ducks, of course – like most others I do my best to tally all the birds at each stop, and my best bird of the day was not a duck at all. As I was scanning the far side of a pond, I noticed a tiny, lone bird flitting through the bare shoreline shrubs. I assumed it was a Golden-crowned Kinglet, the default cold-season option in the category of “songbirds smaller than a chickadee." But when I got it in my scope I saw the blue back, yellow breast, and bold white wing bars of a Northern Parula, our smallest warbler and a species not expected after early October — in fact, this bird represents the third latest record for the Cape.

The duck census serves as a nice tune up for Christmas Bird Count season, which starts in less than two weeks, believe it or not. Speaking of which, if you’re looking for a gift idea for the avid birder on your list, and you’re my wife, may I suggest a gift you can’t buy in stores, the gift of permission to spend several days over the next month in dawn to dusk pursuit of birds without helping with the kids at all. It really is the gift that keeps on giving…