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Winter Brings a Treasure Trove of Ducks

Dear Bird Folks,

This is the first winter that I’ll be spending on Cape Cod and I was wondering what birds I might expect to see. I assume there will be at least a few birds around during the winter or will they all leave here as many of the people do?

– Julie, Eastham, MA


Lucky you, Julie,

I can still remember my first winter on the Cape and it was by far my most memorable. I spent every available minute exploring the wetlands, woods and ponds of the Outer Cape. I was pretty naive about nature back then, which is a nice way of saying I was totally clueless. To prove my point, I’m going tell you a story. It’s a true story, but you have to promise to keep it to yourself. I don’t want anyone else to know how dopey I really was. Remember, I have an image to maintain.

One day I was walking in the woods when I saw some guy hunting. Being fearless back then, I walked right up to him and asked: “What are you shooting?” The hunter responded, “Flintlock.” I replied: “Oh! Good luck. I hope you get one.” When I got home I looked in every one of my nature books trying to find out what kind of animal a “flintlock” was. It wasn’t until weeks later that I figured out that a flintlock is a primitive firearm and not some creature to be hunted. The guy was shooting with, not at, a flintlock. I told you I was clueless.

The reason I mentioned that story, Julie, is so you won’t feel bad when I tell you that there are tons of birds around here in the winter, perhaps more than any other time of year. It’s my favorite time to go birding. During the summer every single body of water on Cape Cod is filled with noisy, greased-up people. When the cold weather arrives the greasy people are replaced with hearty, handsome ducks, and I like ducks. For a lazy bird watcher like me ducks are the ideal bird. They don’t hide in the bushes like the sparrows do. They sit right out on the water, allowing us to get a good look at them. They also aren’t nearly identical like all of those confusing shorebirds. The drakes are strikingly handsome and distinctive. And the best part is that ducks are around when the weather is crisp and cool, not in the stuffy, sweaty, crowded summer. Ducks rock.

Let’s see, where do you live? Eastham? Perfect. Here are some great places to find birds in the winter and you won’t even have to leave town. To start with, check out the bay. Cape Cod Bay can be filled with ducks during the off-season. In fact, while I am writing this column there is a rather nasty mid-October storm raging outside. That might not seem like a sensible time to go birding, but you never know what you might see. Strong winds may blow in tropicbirds, pelicans or the occasional balloon carrying a kid from Colorado. Today’s storm produced a super high tide in the bay and that allowed for close viewing of huge flocks of flying Common Eiders and scoters. Just beyond the eiders were hundreds of feeding Northern Gannets. The gannets continuously dropped from the sky, plunging into the choppy water, only to rise up from below the water’s surface, become airborne and drop again. It was quite the show.

If you are a fair weather birder, then wait until the storm is over. When the sun comes out and the wind subsides, head over to one of Eastham’s freshwater ponds. From late October until they freeze solid, Herring, Great and Jemima Ponds are great places to see ducks…and I’m not talking about boring old mallards, either. Any one of these ponds may contain small flocks of stately Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, plus those cute little Buffleheads, or those even littler and cuter Piped-billed Grebes.

Then there’s the ocean. From the parking lot at Nauset Light you could see a bird that many people may not even realize comes to Cape Cod: the Common Loon is fairly abundant here during the winter. However, don’t expect these loons to have their characteristic black and white loon coloring. This time of year they will be wearing their drab winter outfits, making them look like floating insurance agents.

No day of birding in Eastham would be complete without a stop at fabulous Fort Hill. After you finish marveling at the best view on Cape Cod, head down the trail toward Nauset Marsh. Common Goldeneyes and Red-breasted Mergansers are usually waiting for you when you get there, along with several Great Blue Herons that were too stubborn to migrate south. Also, be sure to keep on the lookout for birds of prey. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Fort Hill when I didn’t see at least one Northern Harrier (that’s a Marsh Hawk for you old schoolers).

Enjoy your first winter on Cape Cod, Julie. It’s the best time to be here. Not only will there be lots of ducks but you should also see some Snow Buntings and if you are lucky, a Snowy Owl. And if you are really lucky you may even see the rare “flintlock.” You know, suddenly I’m wishing I’d kept that story a secret a little longer.