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The 2023 Cape Cod Bird Club's waterfowl census doesn't disappoint

Ruddy Duck
Ryan Adam
Ruddy Duck

This past weekend, in an annual tradition dating back to 1983, birders canvassed the freshwater bodies of Cape Cod to count ducks and other waterfowl. Bushwacking and occasionally ever-so-slightly trespassing their way to every possible vantage point allowing one to peer through the trees at some obscure neighborhood pond, these resolute waterbird enumerators did their duty. This, after all, was the 40th anniversary of the Cape Cod Bird Club’s Waterfowl Census, and they would not be denied their ducks.

The Bird Club is aware of about 440 ponds on the Cape of the sort where you might find at least one duck – even tiny, ephemeral backyard ponds often hold at least a pair of mallards. Other sources say we have 900 ponds on the Cape, so someone is either lying or bad at math. I’ll get to the bottom of those missing ponds one of these days, hopefully not literally. This year’s results are still being tabulated, but on last year’s census 41 observers tallied just under 12,000 waterfowl of 30 species, including ducks, loons, grebes, geese, coot, and swans.

I cover the ponds of Eastham, a potent collection of 11 kettle ponds boasting a diversity of ducks. Two of the ponds are pretty big and have herring runs, which is key to species diversity. I tallied over 600 waterfowl of 15 species, about typical for these ponds. These included American Wigeon, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, and a fun little bird called a Pied-billed Grebe, famous for its ability to disappear straight down into the water like a submarine. For at least the second year in a row, in the same little cove, I saw the same odd female Mallard with a strikingly pale plumage. Some call these female mallards with diluted brown plumage “blonde Mallards”. This one said it was her natural color, but I have my doubts.

A few Eastham ponds are good for one of the less common ducks we have, and a favorite of mine, the odd little Ruddy Duck. Of the over 400 ponds on the Cape, you can expect to find this species on just a handful, mostly in Eastham and Harwich. A breeding male is stunning, all brick red with a stiff, upright tail, a white cheek and an almost garish sky blue bill. But we only see them in winter, when you’d be lucky to even notice these little brown ducks since they tend to sleep all day in the middle of a big pond with their bills tucked in. Early naturalists were harsh on Ruddy Ducks for some reason – one author quoted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology wrote of their “stupidity.. and ludicrous courtship performance” and said “nothing about it is of interest to the sportsman”. That’s pretty rough - maybe a Ruddy Duck stole this guy’s girlfriend in high school.

It’s not just about the ducks, at least not for me. Eastham is a birdy place, and with all the warm weather and abundant natural food, like heavily fruiting cedar trees, songbirds abounded. At a pond below a church parking lot, just steps from Rt. 6, I had several uncommon birds, including a tiny and adorable Orange-crowned Warbler eyeing me from an arm’s length away, a jaunty little Winter Wren, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and one of our small overwintering population of catbirds. The rich bordering shrub swamps at another pond held a mixed flock that included both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets among the chickadees, plus a surprise – a late Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a species that doesn’t normally winter north of Florida. I also saw up to three Bald Eagles, a bird getting to be downright common around here.

Well, you missed your chance to get in on the waterfowl census for yet another year. But you can get in touch with the bird club now and pencil in the first weekend in December 2024 for your duck counting debut. Anyone can do it! All you need is a good attitude, about $3000 worth of birding optics, detailed knowledge of all legal access points for dozens of ponds, and years of waterfowl identification experience. What are you waiting for?

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.