OLDSQUAWS, GOLDENEYES, SCOTERS, AND MORE BEAUTIFUL DUCKS MIGRATING RIGHT NOW ON OUR SHORES! -By Kim Smith

The beautiful collection of ducks currently migrating along our shores could also be called ‘A Study in Black and White,’ with a touch of orange, too.

Common Goldeneye

Swimming inshore with the diminutive, albeit more ubiquitous, Buffleheads are Common Goldeneyes. Both sea ducks are members of the Bucephala genus; their name is derived from the ancient Greek word boukephalos, which means bullheaded and is in reference to their bulbously-shaped heads. During courtship rituals, male members of the Bucephala genus puff out their head feathers, making them appear even more buffalo-headed.

How can you tell the two apart when side by side? Goldeneyes are larger than Buffleheads and they have a circular white patch on their cheek, behind the bill.

Female (left) and Male Buffleheads

The name Oldsquaw was once used to describe the Long-tailed Duck but has fallen out favor in deference to Native American tribes.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has re-vamped their website. From here you can read more about Long-tailed Ducks, but I thought the following was particularly interesting while learning how to distinguish the different plumages.  “Unlike most ducks, which molt twice per year, the Long-tailed Duck has three distinct plumages each year, achieved in a complex series of overlapping partial molts. The Definitive Basic Plumage is never worn in its entirety, as portions of Alternate are retained through the summer and elements of the Supplemental are acquired before all of Basic Plumage is obtained. Therefore change in plumage seems continuous from April to October. Unlike other waterfowl, the Long-tailed Duck wears its “breeding” or Alternate Plumage only in the winter. It gets its “nonbreeding” or Basic Plumage in the spring and wears it for the breeding season. Most other ducks wear the nonbreeding plumage only for a short period in the late summer.”

Male and Female Long-tailed Ducks in nonbreeding plumage.

Male and Female Surf Scoters

The male Surf Scoter’s well-defined stark white patches against ebony feathers lends this sea duck its common name, “Skunk-headed Coot.” But it is the scoter’s bulbous-at-the-base orange, black and white patterned bill that I find interesting and almost comical. The female is a plainer dull blackish-brownish with light colored patches, one behind each eye and at the base of the bill.

The number of, and locations of, Brant Geese appear to be increasing as they are readying for the long migration to the Arctic breeding grounds. Brants migrate the greatest distance of any North American goose.Brant breakfast. 

A lone Canada Goose joined the scene for a moment, but his presence was not welcome by the Brants. His appearance provided a terrific opportunity though to compare the size difference between the Brant and the Canada Goose. You can see in the photo below, the Brant is quite a bit smaller, but that didn’t prevent one from chasing away the Canada Goose.

Canada Goose in the background, Brant Goose in the foreground.

Bye bye Canada Goose

Male and Female Common Goldeneyes and Harbor Seals

BEAUTIFUL BRANTS, SCAUPS, AND RING-NECKED DUCKS MIGRATING RIGHT NOW ON OUR SHORES!

The avian northward migration is heating up! The following are just three of the fascinating species of wild birds readily seen at this time of year, found all around Cape Ann. Look for Brants, Scaups, and Ring-necked Ducks at coves, bays, ponds, quarries, and marshes.

Currently migrating along Cape Ann’s shoreline is a beautiful brigade of Brant Geese. They usually turn up at about this time of year, late winter through early spring, and I have been looking for them in all the usual places. Brants thrive in Cape Ann coves, devouring sea lettuce while riding the incoming and outgoing waves. I see them eating and pecking for food atop barnacle-crusted rocks and am not sure if they are eating seaweed caught on the rocks or tiny crustaceans.

Brants eating bright green sea lettuce.

In the 1930s a terrible disease devastated eel grass and the Brant population plummeted. Surviving Brants adapted to sea lettuce and as the eel grass recovered, so too is the population of Brants recovering.

Brants are wonderfully vocal, making a funny “cronk” sound. I was walking past a flock of geese off in the distance and wasn’t paying much attention. Thinking they were Canada Geese, I ignored them until hearing their vigorous cronking.

They fight with each too, over rocks and food. Tomorrow if I can find the time I will try to post photos that I took of a Brant scuffle.

Brants feeding on the rocks are knocked off by the incoming tide, but then quickly get right back up again.

Brants migrate the furthest north of any species of goose, as far north as Hedwig territory.

Two Males and a Female Scaup

The Greater Scaup breeds as far north as Snowy Owls and Brant Geese, and Ring-necked Ducks are also passing through, not traveling quite as far, but on their way to the Alaskan and Canadian boreal forests. Greater Scaups travel in flocks, sometimes forming rafts of thousands. You can see why in the photos Greater Scaups are colloquially called Bluebills.

Three male Scaups and a Red-breasted Merganser

The most significant threat to Greater Scaups is habitat loss, oil, and sewage pollution. Nearly eighty percent winter over in the Atlantic Flyway where they are subjected to heavy metals in foods and habitat.

Too many suitors! Lone female Ring-necked Duck with potential mates.

The two species are closely related (Aythya collaris and Atythya marila); both are small diving ducks and both are vulnerable to becoming poisoned by lead from diving for food and incidentally eating the lead shot and lures that continues to cause problems in our wetlands. 

READ MORE HERE

Continue reading “BEAUTIFUL BRANTS, SCAUPS, AND RING-NECKED DUCKS MIGRATING RIGHT NOW ON OUR SHORES!”

DANCE OF THE TREE SWALLOWS

Male Tree Swallow

You may have noticed the pretty swallows perching in clusters on telephone lines and flying low over the sand. Both Barn and Tree Swallows can be found at the beach throughout the warmer months, but the birds that are beginning to gather on Cape Ann en masse are the Tree Swallows. The following is a short film from last year’s migration that explains what is happening at this time of year with the Tree Swallows here on our beaches and dunes, and in our neighborhoods.

M is For Migration Through Massachusetts
Responding to Reader’s Questions About Tree Swallows
New Short Film: Tree Swallows Massing

NEW SHORT FILM: TREE SWALLOWS MASSING

This short film is dedicated a dear friend who recently lost a beloved family member. Along with the tender melody by Jules Massenet, especially the last bits of footage (before the credits) made me think of angels and of hope.

  *   *   *

Over the course of the summer while filming the Piping Plover Family at Wingaersheek Beach, Tree Swallows began flocking in ever increasing numbers. They became part of the Piping Plover story not only because a Tree Swallow will occasionally dive bomb a Piping Plover, for whatever reason I am not entirely sure, but also because they are beautiful to observe, and occasionally, seemingly playful, too.

Songbirds that they are, Tree Swallows make a cheery chirping chatter. They have long narrow forked tails, all the better for gliding and for their signature aerial acrobatics. The male’s upper parts are a brilliant iridescent blue-green, the female’s somewhat duller, and both female and male have white underparts. The migrating juveniles are almost entirely brown with either white or pale grayish underparts.tree-swallows-gloucester-massachusetts-11-copyright-kim-smith

Tree Swallows breed in the wetlands and fields of Cape Ann. Their name comes from the species habit of nesting in tree cavities. Tree Swallows have benefited tremendously from efforts to help save the Eastern Bluebird because they also nest in the nest boxes built specifically for the Bluebirds.

Acrobatic aerialists, they twist and turn mid-flight to capture a wide variety of insects including butterflies, dragonflies, greenheads, bees, beetles, and wasps.tree-swallows-gloucester-massachusetts-copyright-kim-smith

Tree Swallows eating insects on the beach and from the crevasses in the driftwood.

Utilizing both fresh and saltwater to bathe, Tree Swallows have a unique habit of quickly dipping and then shaking off the excess water while flying straight upwards.

Tree Swallows begin migrating southward in July and August. The flocks that we see gathering on Cape Ann migrate along the Atlantic Flyway. They overwinter in the southern states of the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Unlike migrating species of butterflies, several generations of Tree Swallows migrate together, the older birds showing the younger birds the way.

Music composed by Jules Massenet: “Méditation” from Thaïs