2018-01-25 / Nature

Rare Geese, Ducks Make Surprise Visits

By Charles Avenengo

Male and female long-tailed ducks. (Photos by Bob Weaver) Male and female long-tailed ducks. (Photos by Bob Weaver) As the New Year has unfolded, the area doesn’t seem to be experiencing much of an invasion of land birds. Instead, the state has hosted some excellent waterfowl, which is a collective term for ducks, geese and swans, and some unusual visitors.

Geese have been well-represented recently. Currently, a number of interesting geese have been found. Most notable are snow geese. Unmistakable in their white plumage, many are currently being spotted in goose flocks throughout Rhode Island. This includes a lone individual that is mixed with the goose flocks on the lawns of the estates of Bellevue Avenue. The snow goose was seen last weekend on the Marble House lawn.

Four Ross’ geese have been reported at various sites for the past few weeks throughout South Kingstown, with another recorded in Little Compton. Similar, but smaller than snow geese, the white Ross’ geese normally winter in Central California, but this year they have been spotted in seemingly record numbers throughout the Eastern Seaboard.

White-winged scoter. White-winged scoter. Another pair of rare geese, a greater white-fronted goose and a pink-footed goose, have been present in Westerly. Both species are considered vagrants to Rhode Island, though their presence is becoming nearly an annual event. They also breed in the far north. The greater white-fronted goose generally winters west of the Mississippi River, while the pink-footed goose winters in Europe.

There are two types of ducks: fresh and saltwater. Because many of the local ponds have been frozen, certain species of ducks are forced to either search for open water or head to the ocean. That’s what takes place with greater and lesser scaup, two types of ducks that currently have small flocks hugging the waters close to Cliff Walk and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Once the ice melts, the scaup will move back to their normal haunt in the freshwater ponds.

Two rare freshwater ducks, the tufted duck and the Eurasian wigeon, have recently been seen at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown and at Watchemoket Cove in East Providence, respectively.

Among the sea ducks, there have been sightings of long-tailed ducks. Formerly called “oldsquaws,” the change in name perhaps reflects a more politically-correct era in birdwatching, which was once a field dominated by men.

Long-tailed ducks are uncommon in local waters. They are often seen either floating or winging by from great distances, generally appearing as blips through binoculars. Through last weekend, however, the handsome black-and-white patterned ducks were reported from close range at a number of coastal stations.

Similar to long-tailed ducks, white-winged scoters are currently being seen with more regularity than usual. There are three species of scoters in North America. The other two species, the black scoters and the surf scoters, are regular fixtures during the winter. But birdwatchers have been hard-pressed to find white-winged scoters, even though the species has a conservation status of “least concern,” and they are the most widespread of the three scaup species throughout the continent. However, the white-winged scoters have been seen this year from a number of coastal reporting stations, also frequently coming close to shore.

The rock stars of the local oceanic waterfowl are the harlequin ducks. They are currently present in small numbers throughout the rockier coastlines of the state, including points off Newport and Middletown. Despite being considered endangered on the Atlantic Seaboard, harlequin duck numbers are slowly increasing. Sachuest Point has always been considered the optimal place to view these colorful ducks bobbing in and out of the surf. Their increase in numbers has enabled viewers to view them from other sites as well, including Brenton Point State Park and Beavertail Point State Park in Jamestown.

Rounding out the waterfowl is swans. The familiar swan we see locally is the mute swan. Introduced by way of Europe, these graceful birds are aggressive towards other waterfowl and often drive them out of their territory.

The discovery of a wintering native species, the tundra swan, has surprised local birdwatchers. Originally reported from Round Pond area of Little Compton on Jan. 19, it was observed throughout the weekend.

Befitting their name, the tundra swans nest in the far Arctic north. A sizable number of their population winters on the Eastern Seaboard, mainly in Chesapeake Bay. Tundra swans are rarely seen in Rhode Island, and then generally only during fall migration and usually on the mainland west of Narragansett Bay.

For those unfamiliar with some of these species, now is the time to investigate.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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