Newport This Week

Don’t “Duck Out” on These Birds

Pair of common eider ducks. (Photo by Chris Powell)

Pair of common eider ducks. (Photo by Chris Powell)

Beavertail State Park on Conanicut Island is one of Rhode Island’s natural and recreational treasures. The 64-foot lighthouse built in 1856 sits on the edge of the rocky, rugged coast, welcoming mariners from around the world to Narragansett Bay.

There are trails to hike, secret fishing spots and views that take your breath away. In warmer months, the museum and aquarium are open to the public, both providing great ways to learn about the history and wildlife of the area.

During the winter, the park can be one of the coldest places in the state to spend an afternoon, but if you are a bird lover, braving the wind and freezing temperatures is always worth it. Why? Ducks!

This is the season to seek out the beautiful array of sea ducks and other waterfowl that migrate from the north to spend the winter in our coastal waters. If these ducks can survive the frigid temperatures, wind and waves, then the least we can do is go out there to admire them.

Last Friday was downright balmy at Beavertail State Park. It was 40 degrees, with little wind and calm seas. I only had to wear two layers of clothing, mittens and a mask to enjoy the day. Parking in the last lot before the lighthouse, I stood on the western shore, looked down and saw huge flocks of common eiders mixed with black scoters, harlequin ducks and a smattering of other species swimming, diving and singing.

Black scoter

Black scoter

Common eider are large ducks with distinctive, heavy, sloping beaks. The adult male is bright white with black sides and a black cap on his head. Seen in good light, the orange on the beak and the green sheen on the back of his head enhances his beauty. Striking in her own right, the female eider is a rich brown with intricate black markings. Female ducks are always more subtle in color to help them blend into their nesting habitats.

You may also see some odd-looking common eider, who seem to have a mixture of male and female plumage. These are the non-breeding males that haven’t developed their full adult col- ors yet. I see these non-breeders in our area even during the summer. Why go north if you are not going to breed?

380 common eider ducks were spotted during the Jamestown Bird Count. (Photos by Chris Powell)

380 common eider ducks were spotted during the Jamestown Bird Count. (Photos by Chris Powell)

Eider breed far north along arctic coasts where the weather is challenging all year. To keep the eggs warm, the adult eider plucks out their own downy feathers to line their nest. For a thousand years, the people who live in these arctic regions have harvested this eider down for their own uses, with no harm to the birds.

Black scoter are compact diving ducks that, like the eider, are feeding on blue mussels and other invertebrates found on this rocky coastline. The adult male is velvety black with a bright orange knobby beak, and the female is a subtle brown with light cheeks and a neat dark cap. If you come upon a flock of black scoter, close your eyes and listen; their mournful descending whistle is a song that will touch your soul.

If you see long strands of dark ducks flying low along the horizon, those are probably scoters. Huge flocks of black scoter, white-winged scoter and surf scoter move up and down the coast all winter long. I affectionately refer to surf scoter as “skunk-heads,” because of the white stripe on the back of their black head. This stripe and their big knobby orange-and-white beak is the best way to tell them apart from other ducks. In addition to his white wing bars, the male white-winged scoter’s eyes are outlined with white that looks like it was painted on by a makeup artist.

Buffleheads are just downright adorable. Tiny ducks that can be seen on both fresh and saltwater, they are there one minute and below the surface the next. The name, bufflehead, comes from the term buffalo head, which describes the blocky shape of the male’s white and black head. Seen in good light, his head also gleams iridescent purple and green. The female is a subtle brown and has a white cheek patch. Like wood ducks and common goldeneyes, bufflehead nest in tree holes. When the fledglings hatch, the mother encourages them to jump to the ground and follow her to nearby water.

The star of Beavertail is the harlequin duck. Sometimes called a “sea mouse,” these small ducks seem to thrive in the roughest waters, both on their wintering grounds and in the fast-flowing rivers where they nest. Scientists who have X-rayed harlequins find that many have healed broken bones from being tossed around by waves and currents as they hunt for aquatic invertebrates and small fish.

The name harlequin comes from the stunning blue, rust and white color pattern of the male. The female reminds me of a female bufflehead with a white cheek patch, but she also has a second white patch behind her eye. Back in the 1980s, a friend and I scoured the Connecticut coastline to find a rare female harlequin that had made an appearance. Now, I can visit Beavertail and count 20 or more harlequins in one place.

The ducks come for the food and shelter that our coastline provides, but they bring with them the beauty and complexity of nature for us to witness.

Nature lover Laureen Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Nature lover Laureen Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

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