GREAT BAY is a birdwatcher’s paradise in the winter. Not just for wintering waterfowl, of which there are plenty, but the chance of seeing our national symbol, the American bald eagle, can be an everyday occurrence if you know where to look and what to look for.
Some of the interesting waterfowl include a myriad of diving ducks. We personally love to watch the goldeneyes — which both the common and more rare Barrow’s are seen. The goldeneye ducks are divers and like to come up to the surface with small shellfish, which they swallow whole.
The fun of watching them is that most often they are accompanied by a few gulls and mergansers, which are quite the thieves and will try to steal the food right out of the goldeneye’s bills!
Bufflehead ducks are much like the goldeneyes, only on a miniature scale. It seems like a small flock of them will all pop underwater at the same time and eventually one will pop back up to the surface and look around for the others, which often seem to be on a string and will all surface at the same time.
There are three types of mergansers that frequent Great Bay. The most common is the common merganser. These ducks feed on small crustaceans and minnows and are often called fish ducks. The red-breasted merganser, a lot rarer than the common, is often called a shell drake. These drakes are very easy to identify but the females of both the common and the red breasted are hard to identify at a distance.
The smallest of the mergansers is the hooded, which is quite rare in the winter here. The hooded drake is often thought of as the most beautiful of the diving ducks and can compete with the gaudy wood duck drake for beauty honors.
Occasionally you’ll be lucky enough to spot a redhead and/or a canvasback diving duck here. We’ve never seen a redhead but have seen an occasional canvasback. If you travel south to Boston Harbor or Cape Cod, your chances of spotting one of these diving ducks is quite good.
Scaup, more commonly called bluebills here, usually winter on Great Bay in larger numbers that the rest of the diving ducks combined. They are mostly vegetarians and dive to the bottom to eat the eelgrass but they will also concentrate on small shellfish when available.
Scaup are in a serious decline nationwide and one of the reasons, it’s thought, is that the ducks that feed on the small zebra and quaga mussels in the Great Lakes are concentrating the harmful pollution that these mussels have filtered out of the water.
Other diving ducks that occasionally frequent the bay are the sea ducks, including the three species of scoters, old squaws (long-tailed sea ducks) and eiders. These ducks are very different from the rest of the diving ducks and have a beauty and charm of their own.
The dabbling ducks, so named because they usually feed on the surface or just tip up to reach bottom in the shallow areas, are also fun to watch. In the winter here on Great Bay, black ducks reign, but nationwide they are also in much lower numbers than formally.
Black ducks are said to be among the wariest of ducks, but you’d never know it this winter as they have been up on shore on peoples’ lawns and wood lots feeding on the very abundant acorn crop of last fall.
In our neighborhood, where homes are clustered along the shore, the black ducks are often within scant feet of the homes and don’t seem that flustered by the civilization.
Mixed in with the black ducks are mallards and black duck/mallard cross breeds. Just a couple of days ago on a particularly windy afternoon when the ducks were working our neighborhood, the wind was blowing the small flocks close enough past our windows that we could actually pick out the hybrid ducks.
The first thing that tips you off is a white rim on a black duck’s purple wing speculum (the patch of bright color on the trailing edge of a duck’s wing). Purebred black ducks have an all purple speculum. Another tip-off is a duck that looks like a black duck but has an orange bill. Male black ducks have a yellow bill. Female black ducks have a mottled green bill. But a female mallard has a mottled orange bill so a duck that has all the features of a black duck but has an orange bill is a female hybrid.
Other dabbling ducks such as teal, gadwalls, widgeon and pintail are very scarce on Great Bay in the winter and if you spot one you’ve had a trophy spotting.
Canada geese are often the only species of geese on the bay in the winter and there are usually plenty of them. Once in a while you’ll see a snow goose but don’t be fooled by the two or three dozen mute swans that winter on the Bay. These birds are not snow geese! And they are not a native bird here. They are feral domestic birds. They are often thought of as an invasive species as they destroy much nesting vegetation of the wild birds and are very territorial and will use up a lot of space when nesting.
Now to the big guy we mentioned — our eagles. Wintering eagles here have been growing in numbers for a couple of decades — probably mirroring their rebounding populations in our region. When the bay is frozen and you notice one or up to three big black dots out on the ice, it’s almost a sure bet you’re looking at eagles! That’s the easy way to spot them.
When they are not out on the ice they usually roost along the shoreline, mostly in the tallest pine trees that have a good view of the eagles’ feeding area. With binoculars or spotting scope, scan the shoreline pine trees looking for a spot of white that usually stands out very starkly. Unless there’s been a recent snowstorm, that spot of white will be the eagles’ head that you are looking at. Immature bald eagles are a mottled black and brown bird and are hard to spot in trees. For some reason, the immature eagles appear larger that the white heads but they are not.
Many of the eagles that frequent the bay have been captured and tagged with colorful leg tags. With good binoculars or scope they are easily seen and can be identified each time you spot that particular bird.
Fish and Game’s Adams Point in Durham is a great place to catch the bay’s bird show. Right now with lack of snow there is easy access and good parking available. Even when the snow is deep a trip to the tip of Adams Point by snowshoes or cross-country skis is fun even if no birds are sighted.
Make the best of the frigid days of the season. Get out there and get you some (photos). Drop us an email at DoDuckInn@aol.com and please stay in touch.