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If it’s feathered and floats, we count it

Hooded Merganser
Ryan Schain
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Hooded Merganser

Some fowl play was afoot this past weekend in the form of the 39th annual Cape Cod Waterfowl Census. Held each year during the first weekend of December, this ambitious project of the Cape Cod Bird Club seeks to count each and every duck, goose, swan, loon, grebe, coot, alcid, gull – basically, if it’s feathered and floats, we count it - across all of the freshwater bodies on Cape Cod. Most of the results are in, so let’s see how the counters did.

Counting ducks and geese may sound easy – as birds go, they’re big and just sort of sit there on the water. Some of the less dignified individuals might even waddle up to you looking for a handout. But au contraire – these birds find ways to make the counting difficult. For one thing, ducks, grebes, and coots love to be way on the opposite side of the pond from you, backlit, and maybe playing hide and seek in the shoreline vegetation. Some are notoriously difficult to differentiate, like Greater and Lesser Scaup. But sometimes it is pretty easy, and these big colorful birds indeed just sit there while you count them.

But first you have to find your ponds. Depending on who you ask, there are somewhere between 400 and 900 ponds on Cape Cod. I’m not sure how there are 500 ponds the sources can’t agree upon, but I’ve never really looked into it. In terms of ponds that ducks use, the bird club knows of some 440. These ponds hold some combination of food resources the ducks and other waterfowl want, mainly small fish, freshwater mussels, and both floating and rooted plants. Ponds with herring runs tend to have the best number and diversity of fowl, but even tiny pools can have a few mallards and Buffleheads.

As usual, I covered the kettle ponds of Eastham, which includes two big herring run ponds that tend to be pretty productive. But I started with one of those classic little trespassy ponds that few know about, and this one held its usual treasure of over 100 Hooded Mergansers, small, smart-looking diving ducks with serrated bills. This little isolated pond must be loaded with baitfish and /or crayfish to be able to feed that many mouths. My next pond held an odd duck in the literal sense – a female mallard with a pigment abnormality that made her sort of cream colored all over instead of the normal mottled brown. Overall I saw 16 species of waterfowl totaling about 700 individuals, plus about 350 gulls of five species.

While the goal is to survey the waterfowl, I of course am looking at all the other birds as well. At one pond, I enjoyed the sight of an adult Bald Eagle lumbering across the sky, majestically terrorizing the big flock of gulls on the water (everything Bald Eagles do is legally considered “majestic” under the Bald Eagle Majesty Act of 1975). This panicked gull flock actually held some of the most interesting birds I saw all day, including at least three Lesser Black-backed Gulls, which is a European species, and another gull I couldn’t even identify. The mystery gull may have been a hybrid or one of the other European species. It takes a special form of birding masochism to look really hard at gulls, and I mostly avoid it in order to stave off my inevitable insanity for a little longer.

Speaking of insanity, you’d be crazy not to take advantage of this wealth of winter waterfowl here on the Cape and Islands, especially while temperatures are still pretty tolerable. So get some decent binoculars and train them on your nearest pond – you may be surprised by what you’ve been missing. And if you find those missing 500 ponds, please let me know – they’ve got to be around here somewhere.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.