Wild Side: Reconsider ducks

Duck watching is a great way to polish your birding skills.

A pair of greater scaup floating along. –Matt Pelikan

The late, great Vern Laux, perhaps the best birder ever to trespass his way across the Vineyard, had little patience with ducks. Oh, he’d add them to the day’s checklist. But if a distant or otherwise problematic duck defied identification for more than a few seconds, Vern would say, “Ah, who cares? It’s just a duck!” And it was on to something more interesting.

I understand Vern’s perspective, and indeed, for many years, I have to admit, I shared it. Ducks are large birds, and generally sedate ones; they spend a good portion of their existence bobbing on the water with the vigor of lobster pot buoys. For a birder with even a modicum of experience, the vast majority of ducks seen in the field are instantly identifiable. So watching ducks can generate all the excitement of selecting vegetables from the frozen foods case, and it’s natural for skilled birders to prefer groups like sparrows, shorebirds, and flycatchers, which are active and challenging.

But with all due respect to Vern, my duck-dissing days are over. More and more of my birding time, especially in the winter, is devoted to this group. Ducks repay close attention from birders of all levels.

It isn’t hard to sell the attractiveness of male ducks. Drakes of most duck species are boldly patterned, and often boldly colored as well. On some species, the head coloration is not merely intense but iridescent. And there is often subtlety there, as well; consider, for example, the faint pink wash on the breast of a male common eider, seen well in good light. You didn’t expect that!

But looked at carefully — and every birder should strive to look carefully at every bird — female ducks can also dazzle. Duck body feathers are often intricately patterned, dark but with pale margins, and sometimes pale areas intruding into the dark center of each feather. Seen one at a time, such feathers may not look like much. But a whole duck’s worth of patterned feathers adds up to intricate patterns of scales or bars.

Distant ducks can pose a challenge even for skilled birders, and working on identifying them is like mental strength training: It forces you to maximize the capabilities of your optics and make the most of every photon that enters your eye. Conscientious duck-watching hones the skills of birders of any level of experience.

With time and practice, the bold patterns of ducks seen closely translate to recognizable cues, even at artillery range. With good light and steady hands on the binocs, the presence or absence of tiny patches of white turn a generic scoter into a particular species at a half-mile or more. That’s the sort of ability that beginners should aspire to, and experts should strive to maintain.

Finally, while it’s fair to say that most ducks one encounters are expected species, and easy to identify, there are exceptions, and they can be important ones. Ducks are powerful fliers, and if they go astray, can wind up far from home. Quite a few species are possible here as vagrants, in addition to a respectable list of rare but more-or-less regular visitors. And some of these rarities closely resemble common species. So patience and attention to detail can pay off, bigtime.

February and March are probably the height of the duck-watching season on the Vineyard. The many species that breed north of us but winter here are at their peak numbers, with seasonally resident individuals augmented by birds from farther South, beginning their spring migration. A good day of birding can easily produce 20 waterfowl species. Leaving out a few vanishingly rare vagrants, something like 32 species of waterfowl (ducks, plus geese and swans) can realistically be hoped for on the Vineyard.

This winter is a particularly intriguing one on the duck front. While duck numbers haven’t been especially large, the winter has been a good one in terms of diversity and near-rarities. Redhead, canvasback, common merganser, and Eurasian wigeon spring to mind as rarities that have been reported with some regularity in recent weeks. In most cases, these have been single birds, found reliably at specific locations. But the presence of one suggests the possibility of more, perhaps waiting to be found by a birder who explores and pays attention.

Where to start with duck watching? You could do worse than the head of the Lagoon, where a causeway separates a freshwater pond to the south from the saltwater of the Lagoon proper. The varied habitat translates to duck diversity. A conceptually similar situation obtains at the Squibnocket parking lot, with the open ocean hosting one set of ducks, and an arm of brackish Squibnocket Pond attracting another.

But ducks are widespread just now, and nearly any unfrozen body of water is likely to produce at least a few birds to scrutinize. With apologies to Vern, they deserve some of your attention.