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Tufted Duck on Long Pond

Dear Bird Folks,

I heard that a Tufted Duck is being seen on Long Pond in Harwich. I would like to see this rare species, but Long Pond is pretty big and I’m not sure where to look. Any suggestions?

– Chris, Sandwich, MA


It sure is, Chris,

Long Pond sure is big. How big? With over six miles of coastline, covering over 700 acres, and parts of two towns, Long Pond is the largest freshwater pond on Cape Cod. All of this begs the question: why is it called a “pond” and not a lake? My idea of a pond is a place where kids go to catch frogs. Instead of frogs, Long Pond is known for more robust activities, such as waterskiing in the summer and iceboat racing in the winter. This body of water has a lot to offer, except one thing. With just three small town beaches, Long Pond is essentially surrounded by private land. In other words, it’s not a great place for birders…unless they’re on water skis.

After receiving your note, I decided to spend a morning birding Long Pond in order to provide you with more accurate information. (Well, accurate by my standards.) My first stop was at the east end of the pond, in a parking area off of Cahoon Road. I didn’t stay long since the entire cove was totally iced-in. (Ice in February? What’s that about?) Oddly, the little adjacent pond, appropriately named “Smalls Pond,” was mostly ice-free. Smalls Pond had lots of ducks, including everyone’s favorite, Buffleheads and stately Hooded Mergansers, but no Tufted Duck. Back in the car I went and headed for the town beach off of Long Pond Drive. There was plenty of open water here, and I know why. The wind was screaming from the north so strong that it created whitecaps high enough to surf on. The only thing freezing here was my face. I didn’t see any ducks and moved on, quickly.

My next stop was at the west end of the pond, along Rt. 124. There is no legal parking here. However, the bike trail runs between the water and the road, so if you can find a place to park, it’s worth the stop. I spent about twenty minutes scoping the pond from the bike trail and chatting with several other birders. None of us were having much luck, but we were treated to a large flock of Common Mergansers. I counted 60 of them, but someone else reported over 90. (It was hard for me to count accurately with my mittens on.) It was on to the Brewster side.

The Town of Brewster’s only public access to Long Pond is off of Crowells Bog Road. From this small beach I could see goldeneyes, loons and more mergansers, plus a very agitated kingfisher (which is a little redundant since kingfishers are always agitated). But what I didn’t see was the Tufted Duck or any scaup. Scaup? Oh, right. I forgot to mention that Mary Jo, the birder who first discovered the Tufted Duck, reported that it was feeding with a huge flock of Greater and Lesser Scaup. Now I was starting to become agitated, like the kingfisher. This lake, I mean pond, is really big, so I understand not being able to find one rare bird, but not a huge flock of ducks. I needed to take a break, warm up and come up with a new plan. In the meantime, I’ll tell you a bit about Tufted Ducks and why all the interest.

Tufted Ducks are a common Old World species, breeding from Iceland, to Siberia and into Asia. The males have dark heads and bodies, with white along the sides. But the bird’s key characteristic is a long tuft of feathers sticking out of the back of its head, giving it a Dennis the Menace look, but without the slingshot. They are diving ducks, feeding on vegetation as well as small fish and mollusks. Just about every winter a few of these wandering birds appear somewhere on the coast of North America. And last month, one adventurous Tufted Duck was found, for the first time ever, in distant Melbourne, Australia. Maybe I should go there to look for the bird. It would most certainly be warmer.

After studying the map, I found a part of Long Pond that I wasn’t able to see from any of the town beaches. Unfortunately, it was only accessible via a private road. (What’s up with all these private roads around here?) I know the locals don’t like the public using their roads, but this was an urgent situation. We are talking about a Tufted Duck here. And my hunch paid off. Just offshore, from this private landing was the much rumored massive flock of scaup. Eureka! Now came the hardest part.

Male scaup and male Tufted Ducks look rather similar. Picking out the rare bird would be difficult, and, as it turned out, too difficult for me. The ducks were constantly diving (feasting on freshwater mussels). Every time I studied one group of ducks, another ten would pop up twenty feet away. I stood there in the cold for nearly an hour, determined not to give up…until I did. It was getting close to lunchtime. Freezing is one thing, but missing lunch is never an option. I headed home.

I spent all morning at various locations around Long Pond, Chris, and saw a surprising number of ducks, but, alas, no Tufted Duck. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. (People often see birds I’ve missed.) I suggest you try from any of the town landings. If you strike out there, give some of the private roads a shot. (You didn’t hear that from me.) Just look for a big flock of scaup. If you find it, search for the one with a Dennis the Menace haircut. It will be right next to the duck that looks like Mr. Wilson. I mean, “Good ol’ Mr. Wilson.”