While birds like robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and goldfinches are still on the move, for the most part, songbird migration is over, symbolically marked by the arrival of juncos. Here on the Cape, it’s the comings and goings of waterfowl and seabirds that defines November. From quiet ponds to raging surf, backshore to bay, the winter waterbirds are here, and they are hungry.
The big bodied sea ducks, eiders and three species of scoters, arrived several weeks ago, but will still be on the move throughout the winter. Close to 30,000 scoters were tallied at Sandy Neck in Barnstable in early November, and 5000 Common Eiders were noted at Race Point on the 14th. You should expect more modest numbers most places, unless you get out in a boat off Monomoy, where eiders can number in the hundreds of thousands – a birding trip in 2010 estimated 350000 Common Eiders due south of Monomoy Point, and estimates from plane surveys have been over half a million. That’s 2.2 million pounds of duck in search of mussels to eat, which gives you an idea of how productive the waters off Chatham can be.
If you have the thermoregulatory fortitude to spend time on the cold, windy outer beaches in search of seabirds, you’ll find that this is where the real action is. Time at places like Head of the Meadow in Truro and Race Point in Provincetown may reward you with the splashy drama of hundreds, or perhaps thousands of plunge diving Northern Gannets, plus hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes and Bonaparte’s Gulls over bait. Red-throated Loons and Razorbills can also be seen rocketing around and splashing down to get in on the action. Increasingly, summer holdovers like Great Shearwaters can be seen in these feeding frenzies even into December. Much of the fun is in looking for less common species among the masses, relative treasures like Common Murres, Dovekies, or Red-necked Grebes.
On calmer waters, Buffleheads, absent a few weeks ago, now occupy almost every water body you can think of, from small wooded ponds to salt ponds and harbors. These living rubber duckies weigh in at less than a pound, and thus have more modest appetites when compared with the sea ducks. But from the perspective of a snail, a Bufflehead is a vicious killer. But everyone who’s not a snail seems to love these buoyant, black-and white, bubble-headed birds, who reliably mark the change of seasons for many a pond-front property owner.
Always handsome Hooded Mergansers are now sprinkled across the surface of any pond with a supply of minnows, which they snag with a serrated bill after subsurface pursuit. With the same black, white, and chestnut color palette of a Bernese Mountain Dog, these floating works of art can number in the hundreds even on small ponds, though smaller numbers are typical. Around dusk and dawn, look for them in fast flight over salt marshes, where they like to spend the night.
While many birds face an uncertain future, ducks are one of the few groups of birds that have shown population increases over the last 50 years. Money from the federal duck stamp program and private organizations has protected innumerable breeding wetlands across the interior of the continent, ensuring their continued survival. You can help keep tabs on these successful winter visitors by participating in the annual Cape Cod Waterfowl Census during the first weekend in December. Check the Cape Cod Bird Club website for details. Don’t worry - while the ideal candidate can pick out a female Blue-winged Teal at 400 yards, no one actually checks your duck identification credentials…