2013-11-14 / Nature

Sea Ducks Return to Sachuest Point

By Jack Kelly


Male Long-tailed Duck. Male Long-tailed Duck. Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, one of Aquidneck Island’s gems of nature, hosted hundreds of visitors over Veterans Day weekend. The Visitor Center was a beehive of activity as families and individuals interacted with the center’s educational displays and interpretive panels, which explain the delicate balance of the multiple habitats and wildlife species in the refuge.

Volunteer staff members answered a myriad of questions concerning trail routes, observation points, and wildlife species recently sighted on the refuge or in nearby waters. According to volunteer Jack Lewis, the most frequently asked questions involved the last reported positions of wintering sea ducks in the waters off the refuge. “Folks are really interested in seeing the Harlequin Ducks, Long-tailed Ducks and others that have come in during the past week.”

A walk along the trails of the refuge led to a number of surprising discoveries. In the waters of Sachuest Bay, near the east end of Sachuest Beach, a flock of 50 Bufflehead Ducks were diving beneath the waves in search of crustacean prey. This diminutive duck is a winter resident of Rhode Island’s sheltered salt water bays, wetlands and brackish marshes. The average adult is 14 inches long with a wingspan of 21 inches. The male of the species has distinctive colorings which include white sides, a rich black back and head, and a large white patch on the back of its head. The female has dark coloring overall, with an oblong white cheek patch below and behind the eye. Both sexes have blue bills and vivid red legs and feet.


Bufflehead ducks forage for crustaceans at Sachuest Beach. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Bufflehead ducks forage for crustaceans at Sachuest Beach. (Photo by Jack Kelly) The Bufflehead nests and breeds across central and western Canada, as well as parts of interior Alaska. This species nests in tree cavities near freshwater lakes, ponds, rivers and wetlands. These ducks eat a wide variety of insects, crustaceans, and plants. The Bufflehead is named for its disproportionately large head and carries colloquial nicknames such as “Buffalo-head” and “Butterball.” This species will remain in our region until next April, when it will again migrate north.


Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. While watching the antics of the little ducks, a female Northern Harrier Hawk was observed in the air above the adjacent field, flying low over the tall grasses. The hawk was rocking side to side on upswept wings until she suddenly dropped straight down into the vegetation. Harriers are excellent mousers and they favor open habitats like that at Sachuest Point. The hawk flew up quickly without prey and continued its hunt.

Following the trail towards Sachuest Point, we sighted a small flock of 10 Long-tailed Ducks about 150 yards offshore. This duck is one of the most elegant of waterfowl species. A series of molts (plumage changes) results in a wide variety of seasonal plumage colors in both sexes. The male displays dramatic colors during breeding season. The average male has a body length of 16 inches and has a long tail measuring 5-6 inches. The female has the same body and wing dimensions as the male, but lacks the long tail.

During the winter months the male has a white head, tan face, and a brown neck patch. It has a brown lower breast, white body, dark wings, and a pink tip to its dark bill. The female has a brown crown over a white face, a brown lower cheek patch, and a dark bill. Both sexes have vivid red eyes.

This species breeds and nests in the northern-most Canadian and Alaskan tundra, usually near ponds, streams and rivers. It winters in flocks along the Pacific coast from northern California to Alaska, the Great Lakes, and the North Atlantic coast from Labrador to North Carolina. The Long-tailed Duck is capable of diving to depths of 200 feet in pursuit of shellfish and crustaceans. The male of the species yodels a call of “ow-A-Lou-ET!” while the female has a short, husky quack. These calls are often heard from flocks on calm days in winter.

Near the headlands of Sachuest Point, a small flock of 12 Harlequin Ducks was diving and foraging for shellfish close to the shoreline rocks. The seven males of the group displayed the overall patterns of cobalt blue and cinnamon that this species is known for. In addition to its spectacular full body coloring, the male also has a bright white ear spot, white facial disk in front of its eyes, black-bordered white stripes on its head and breast, and white spotted markings on its wings. It has a small, light blue bill, long pointed tail, and dark feet and legs. The females have dark plumage and distinctive white spots on their cheeks and behind their ears, as well as a small blue bill. Both sexes have bulbous heads and thick necks.

The average adult Harlequin is 16 inches long and has a wingspan of 26 inches. The species breeds and nests along fast-flowing rivers in northeastern Canada, the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada and mountainous regions of the far western United States. It winters along both the northern Pacific Coast and Atlantic coasts of the United States and Canada. The male gives a call of a creaky, whistled “pwee!” while the female has a quacking, staccato chatter.

There are a number of wintering waterfowl species already in residence at Sachuest Point, including Common Eider, Black Scoters, Surf Scoters, Canada Geese, American Black Ducks, Horned Grebes and Common Loons. In the next few weeks more wintering waterfowl species will arrive, as well as migratory harbor seals and grey seals which may be observed on the rocks along the Sakonnet River. Other wintering avian species such as Short-eared Owls and Roughlegged Hawks from the Canadian north are expected.

Sachuest Point offers an excellent destination for those seeking an adventure with nature or a quiet, serene walk by the ocean while enjoying majestic ocean vistas. The refuge’s trails are open year round from dawn until dusk, and the Visitor Center is open daily from 10 a.m.-4p.m. For more information call 401-847-5511.

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