Winter Waterfowl Walk

On Sunday morning, with temperatures hovering around 20, I had a turnout of 29 people for a two hour walk exploring the ponds and landscape of the upper Muddy River.  We started on the Boston side of Leverett Pond where I expected to find a collection of Wood Ducks along the islands there. As we approached the pond edge a Great Blue Heron flew off:

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Great Blue Heron taking flight.

But no Wood Ducks!  The water was totally frozen at the southern end of this long and skinny pond.  When I scouted for the walk a few days earlier it was open and there were 30 or more Wood Ducks there.  We continued to circle the pond and as we got to the open northern end there was a mass of waterfowl, and among them were woodies. When we got closer though they all took flight!  Fortunately they circled back and although they landed some distance away we counted at least 43 Wood Ducks, and scoped some, so everyone got good looks. A spectacular bird:

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Female (front) and male Wood Ducks

Leverett Pond has become a regular hotspot for these secretive ducks. About five years ago birders from several local conservancy groups erected nest boxes on two of the ponds on the Necklace.  They were ignored for several years, but in spring 2014 a female and chicks were noticed on the pond:

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Female Wood Duck, right, and four of her 6 ducklings.

This was the highlight bird for the trip as several in the group had never seen them before.  We also spotted six Ring-necked Ducks:

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Two striking male Ring-necked Ducks and a female, all showing the classic bill pattern.  Why aren’t they called Rind-billed Ducks?

After looking over the hundreds of Mallards for something different, we had to settle for three American Black Ducks. When showing off their wing speculum they can be rather pretty:

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American Black Duck. They look much like female Mallards, but are somewhat larger, darker and males have a yellow bill.

We moved on to Jamaica Pond, passing Willow, and Ward’s Ponds on the way.  Ice was prominent on these smaller ponds, and there were no waterfowl.

Jamaica Pond had some ice but was mostly open water.  There was a huge flotilla of Hooded Mergansers moving about and feeding; I estimated more than 50.  Handsome creatures:

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Hooded Merganser, male

The female of this species is much more subtle, but equally lovely:

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Female Hooded Merganser, devouring a fish.

Farther out was a large raft of Ruddy Ducks. Most were sleeping and they were back-lit so the primary ID was by their nickname, “stiff-tails”:

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Ruddy Ducks, showing their diagnostic silhouette.

When one is lucky enough to see them up close they are worthy of admiration:

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Ruddy Ducks. The one at top right is beginning to show some of the blue color in his bill which appears during breeding. The two in the lower part of that frame are females, lacking the white cheek of the male.

American Coots, more closely related to rails than ducks, are usually well represented  on Jamaica Pond but until last week there was only one, hanging out with the Mallards. Today there were 5;

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American Coots are roly-poly birds with white bills unlike ducks. Notice also their odd partially-webbed feet.

As winter persists Jamaica Pond often ices over; in the process coots and other winter waterfowl get squeezed into receding open water pools.

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25 or more American Coots on a mostly iced over pond.

When the ponds freeze over waterfowl must move to open waters; Leverett Pond, the Riverway or the Basins in the Fens often stay partially clear all winter.  But some may never make it to safety:

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A female Hooded Merganser being captured and drowned by a Great Black-backed Gull on Jamaica Pond in December 2008.

I watched this grisly demise of the female hoodie, that was confined-along with many others- in a small area of open water.  Great Black-backed Gulls are the world’s largest gull, and are described in the iBird PRO app as “pugnacious, predatory and opportunistic”. They are never numerous on the Emerald Necklace ponds, but in freezing weather they are a menace to waterfowl of all sorts.

The upper ponds of the Emerald Necklace have hosted more than 30 species of waterfowl in recent years. To see photos of some of these uncommon ducks, check out these previous posts- Jamaica Pond Ducks and Rare Birds & Odd Ducks at Jamaica Pond .

Here are eBird checklists from Sunday’s walk:

Olmsted Park–Leverett Pond, Suffolk, Massachusetts, US

Dec 11, 2016 9:00 AM – 9:45 AM

Protocol: Traveling

0.8 mile(s)

Comments:     sunny and cold, 20 degrees

15 species

  • Wood Duck  43
  • American Black Duck  3
  • Mallard  150
  • Ring-necked Duck  6
  • Great Blue Heron  1
  • Ring-billed Gull  5
  • Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  6
  • Mourning Dove  5
  • Downy Woodpecker  1
  • Blue Jay  2
  • Black-capped Chickadee  5
  • White-breasted Nuthatch  1
  • Dark-eyed Junco  4
  • Northern Cardinal  1
  • House Sparrow  25

View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32982557

Jamaica Pond, Suffolk, Massachusetts, US

Dec 11, 2016 10:15 AM – 11:00 AM

Protocol: Traveling

0.5 mile(s)

Comments:     sunny and cold, 20 degrees

11 species

  • Canada Goose  35
  • Mallard  40
  • Hooded Merganser  50  
  • Ruddy Duck  45
  • American Coot  5
  • Ring-billed Gull  20
  • Herring Gull  75
  • Blue Jay  1
  • Black-capped Chickadee  2
  • European Starling  6
  • House Sparrow  12
  • View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32982601

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (http://ebird.org)

Ill be doing a first of year walk in the Arnold arboretum on Sunday January 8 starting at 9:00AM from the front gate.  hope to see you there.

Happy Holidays and good birding!

 

A clinic on some shorebirds

Olmsted’s original plan for the Emerald Necklace was to extend it from Franklin Park to the coast, probably near Castle Island and Pleasure Bay in South Boston.  I went there today because a friend had posted on BostonBirds that he has seen some late fall shorebirds on the rocks along the causeway that separates Pleasure Bay from the Boston Harbor.  It is always windy along the coast, but today was especially so; I had to hold onto my hat most of the time.  I walked along the causeway toward “Mother’s Rest”, checking the rocks on both sides for these little guys that collect at high tide when the nearby exposed sandy beaches are covered.  I first spotted three Ruddy Turnstones sunning themselves on the less windy ocean side:

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Ruddy Turnstones. Note the straight gray-black bill and the reddish legs characteristic of these birds.

I ran into another birder coming from the opposite direction and we compared notes. She had seen some waterfowl but no shorebirds, so I told her where to look for the Turnstones.  As I moved on I glanced at the rocks on the windier bay side and Bingo:

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A large group, sometimes called a “flight” or “fling”, of Dunlin holding forth in the wind.

The birds kept moving about, making an exact count difficult, but I estimated over 100.  I called out to my new birding colleague and she came back to admire the group.  After a bit I proceeded along the path, seeing nothing but several “rafts” of Common Eiders bouncing in the ocean waves.

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Part of a flotilla of aptly named Common Eiders. They are sexually dimorphic, the males being much more dramatically plumaged than the rust-brown females.

These salt water loving ducks can be seen year around in Boston Harbor, but are much more plentiful in the winter.

When I returned to the area where the Dunlins had been spotted the other birder had been studying the group and had noticed two other species admixed w the Dunlins. Can you spot them?

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There are 30 Dunlins in the image, along with two Ruddy turnstones and two Purple Sandpipers.

Here is a closeup of a few Dunlins:

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Dunlins. Note the thin decurved black bill (seen especially well in shadow), the black legs and the drab color with clear white belly. In breeding plumage these birds have a large black belly patch, and are more colorful overall.

And here are a couple of close-ups of the least common species present, Purple Sandpiper:

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Purple Sandpiper. This shorebird also has a somewhat down-curved bill, black with a yellow/orange base, and notably yellow legs.

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The difference in the color and thickness of the legs and feet and the darkness of the plumage is seen clearly in this shot of a Purple Sandpiper, left and a Dunlin.,right.

And here is an image of a Dunlin alongside of a Ruddy Turnstone:

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Note the difference in body color and, especially, leg and foot color, of these two species. The smaller, straighter bill of the Ruddy Turnstone is not visible in this resting bird.

All of these three species of shorebirds can be seen in the fall in Massachusetts.  They are not displaying their breeding finery, as they all breed far north of us in Alaska, Northern Canada, Hudson Bay and even Greenland.   The usual experience of seeing these birds is from a considerable distance as they forage along the sandy shore, or as flocks in flight:

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At one point many of the Dunlins took flight, but were too close to capture other than in this blurry image.

Because it is hard to get photos of these shorebirds up close, I thought this little “clinic” on them and their identification was worth posting.  Here is the answer to the quiz posted above:

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Among the many Dunlins are two Purple Sandpipers, circled in red, and two Ruddy Turnstones, in green.  Had you spotted them?

I have one more walk scheduled for 2016, Sunday December 11th.  I’ll begin the new year in the Arboretum on Sunday January 8th. See the end of my last post for details and directions.

Good Birding!