Those who follow me through my social media accounts know me as the Fish Guy. In recent months however, my posts have focused more on wildlife that lives above the surface rather than below it. This change of direction is fueled by two facts.
First, I do not like cold water! Once ocean temperatures drop below 55 degrees, I hang up my underwater camera for the season. Second, and more important, Long Island is a winter home to some really amazing wildlife that cannot be viewed locally at any other time of year.
The time I’d normally spend underwater during the summer months is now spent creeping along the shoreline photographing my favorite of these winter visitors, the waterfowl.
Why do these ducks visit Long Island when water and air temperatures are at their lowest? They come here for the same reason Long Islanders “migrate” to the tropics every winter — to stay warm! Many of these winter visitors nest in the Arctic tundra, where winters are not only brutally cold, but nights are long with little to no daylight.
As their home lakes, ponds and bays freeze, food becomes difficult to find and the ducks are forced to migrate south in search of open water and nourishment. The timing of the onslaught of winter determines when they begin their voyage south. On average, we start seeing the first small flocks of ducks by the end of October, but with this winter being warmer than normal, few have had to venture here to find open water.
Waterfowl can be broken down in to several groups; ducks, geese and swans. Ducks can be further broken down into two categories: dabblers and sea ducks. Commonly found in your local “duck pond,” dabblers feed on submerged aquatic vegetation and invertebrates by tipping their bodies down in order to reach the bottom. This feeding method requires that they inhabit small, shallow bodies of water; hence their nickname, puddle ducks.
The most recognized of the dabbler ducks by far is the mallard. A common ancestor of most domestic duck species, the mallard has an extensive range and can be found throughout most of North American and Eurasia, with populations living on Long Island year round.
Similar in appearance and often confused with the hen (female) mallard is the American black duck. Both drake (male) and hen black ducks have all-brown plumage that is similar to the hen mallard’s but tends to be much darker. Another distinguishing characteristic between the two is bill color. Black ducks have an olive-colored bill, while the bill of a hen mallard is orange. Although both species can be found in fresh water, black ducks are more commonly found in quiet, protected areas of salt marshes.
With drakes having a green head and hens having all-brown plumage, another duck that can be easily confused with a mallard is the northern shoveler (see top photo). Upon closer examination, one will notice that the bill of a northern shoveler is very large and spoon-shaped. The edge of the bill has many small projections, known as lamellae, which allow them to strain small aquatic invertebrates from the water.
The second group of ducks is the divers. As their name implies, these ducks are capable of diving below the surface in order to forage, which allows them to feed in much deeper bodies of water than dabblers. The champion of all the divers is the long-tailed duck, also known as an oldsquaw.
This diving duck is capable of diving to 200 feet in search of crustaceans, mollusks and fish. While wintering around Long Island, flocks of long-tailed ducks will remain entirely at sea, only returning to land next spring to nest in the arctic tundra.
Scoters — surf, white-wing and black — along with common eiders are often found in the same habitat as long-tailed ducks. These divers are considerably larger than other duck species, with the common eider being the largest duck species in the northern hemisphere. They also feed on invertebrates such as mussels, clams, crabs and shrimp.
Some other common species of diver ducks found locally during the winter include canvasbacks, redheads, ring-neck ducks, buffleheads, ruddy ducks, red-breasted mergansers, hooded mergansers and scaup. All of these can be found on large bodies of water such as bays, the Sound and the ocean.
As I mentioned earlier, geese and swans are also present among our visiting winter waterfowl. One might ask, “Why brave the cold to look for geese or swans when you can visit just about any local pond or lake during the summer when it is warm to see them?”
Canada geese are very common on Long Island year round. But during winter months you can often spot a snow, barnacle, white-fronted or Ross’ goose mixed within the flock of Canadas. As for swans, three species live in North America; mute, tundra and trumpeter. Although mute swans are very common, they are an introduced species from Europe. The other two swan species live far to the north, but will occasionally stray to Long Island, especially during harsh winters.
Long Island is a winter destination for some amazing species of waterfowl, many of which cannot be viewed on Long Island at any other time of the year. So bundle up, grab the binoculars and the camera and get to know some of the North Fork’s winter vacationers.
Top photo caption: A red-breasted merganser drake. (Credit: Chris Paparo)
With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the New York State Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram @fishguyphotos.
Where to look
• Peconic Riverfront Park (behind Main Street in Riverhead)
• Indian Island County Park
• Mattituck Inlet
• Goldsmith’s Inlet
• Orient Causeway
• Orient Beach State Park
• Orient Point
• Any North Fork corn/sod field — especially when looking for different goose and swan species