The Punk Rocker of Ducks and Other Waterfowl

Jan 23, 2019

Credit Peter R. Flood

Last Thursday, intrepid Cape Cod Bird Club treasurer Mary Jo Foti was perusing the waterfowl on Long Pond, which straddles the Harwich-Brewster line. She noted the typical winter species for this often duck-rich pond – scaup, goldeneye, mergansers, Buffleheads. But one duck that crossed her view looked a little off, like a scaup that was having a bad hair day. It turned out she had found the punk rocker of ducks – the Tufted Duck.

I say punk rocker, but in reality the scraggly, dangling nape feathers on these ducks make them look more like the bands unscrupulous, ponytailed manager than one of the musicians. But it’s possible I’m overthinking this analogy. 

Tufted Ducks, which are closely related to our more familiar scaup and Ring-necked Ducks, are rare visitors to North America from their Eurasian breeding range. You may have seen them if you’ve traveled across the pond as they can be found paddling the parks of London year round. But on this side of the Atlantic, they are a genuine rarity. The Tufted Duck is old hat to Nantucketers, since an adult male has been present on the island each winter for at least six years.  Falmouth has a history of hosting the occasional Tufted Duck among big rafts of wintering scaup at Salt Pond, but besides some dusty old records from Sandwich and Chatham, most of the Cape has no records of this fancy fowl from the Old World.

The Harwich bird has been associating with a big flock of both Greater and Lesser Scaup and sometimes Ruddy Ducks. These birds are moving between a couple of big ponds where they are feeding on one of our lesser known local shellfish resources, freshwater mussels. These mussels are themselves fascinating – their reproduction depends on certain species of fish to host their parasitic larval stage, and adult mussels can live for decades. Though I’ve heard of folks eating them, I wouldn’t bother, since they reportedly taste like an old shoe, not to mention the things they might be accumulating over decades of filtering pond water. I’m happy to leave them for the scaup and goldeneye.

The nice thing about a rarity like this is that it gets people out and looking for birds at a time of year they might just as likely be cocooning and binge-watching Netflix, especially on days like Monday with its face-numbing, sub-zero wind-chill. The couple of times I have seen this duck, I have also been treated to close looks at the Bald Eagles that frequent these ponds, including a likely breeding pair and 2 immatures. 

Credit Mark Faherty

On one occasion the pair of huge, loudly calling birds locked talons low overhead, providing a truly special, “Wild America” moment just ten minutes from my house. And in the process of looking for the Tufted Duck, some folks have also seen another uncommon duck, the beautiful Barrow's Goldeneye, in a classic case of rare birds begetting other rare birds due to the increase in visits by birders.

This is the best time of year to see ducks, as cold weather ices over smaller ponds and forces them onto salt ponds and coves, harbors, and shrinking open water patches in larger ponds and lakes. You can do well with nothing but binoculars at some spots, but a scope is always helpful for watching waterfowl. If you don’t have one, consider joining an organized walk with your local bird club or nonprofit. What do you have to lose? Other than maybe the feeling in your face – damn it’s been cold out there.