Beginning of December and it’s full winter ducks season here on Long Island.
A season to watch and enjoy a good variety of ducks on our ponds, marshes and ocean bays that we don’t get to see the rest of the year. Most of these ducks breed and raise their young in Northern Canada and head south to spend the winter in warmer waters where food is more abundant. While we are all familiar with the Mallards, Black ducks and Gadwalls that we see pretty much all year round, these winter ducks give us the chance to see very different varieties.
The Harlequin and the Long-tailed, both ocean bay ducks, compete for the top spot in beauty. Pintails and Teals are not far behind. And what can be more cute than the Buffleheads. The Coots with their blackish body and the white bill bring up the rear. Though not a duck, they belong to the rail family, they are seen mostly in the company of ducks and most people mistake them as such. Duck behavior is also interesting and clearly distinguishable. Such as that of the American Wigeon that I always see hanging around other duck species and stealing their food. To the Northern Shovelers that feed in large groups, circling together stirring up the bottom and creating a whirlpool to cause food to come up to the surface.
Beautiful when they float, not so pretty when they walk and gorgeous when they fly and show off their colorful plumage. And some of them have a very interesting call. Check out the Common Eider’s sound here.
I have been watching and admiring the winter ducks for about 10 years or so here on Long Island. While the ‘Waterfowl Population Status, 2016’ from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates point to a steady or slightly increase in duck population in North America, my local observations are mixed. Five or six years ago I could count 500-1,000 Scaups on the ponds of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Today I have a hard time to see to 20 or 30. Fewer and fewer Redheads and Canvasbacks also. On the other hand I see a large increase in the numbers of Northern Shovelers, hundreds now vs. a few years ago. Same for the count of American Coot.
December also brings the start of the duck-hunting season, December 4 to January 28 here on Long Island. In the season on early mornings and throughout the day, I can clearly hear the sound of gunshots from the nearby bays. And can see the duck hunters return to the dock with their fully camouflaged boats, even the dogs are dressed in camo outfits, showing off the killed ducks on the gunwales. It’s a legal sport so I’m not going to put a stop to that. But I hope their shots are way off. And do hope that all hunters are more and more aware, respectful and considerate of the environment and those who live in it, being animals or people, and stop using lead-based ammo.
So if you’re out for a walk by the pond, marsh or bay grab your binoculars and keep an eye out for these gorgeous winter ducks. They’re here for a few short months.