by Jamie Bogart, Lloyd Center Research Associate

swans at quicksand click to enlarge

Lloyd Center staff and volunteers returned to coastal ponds and estuaries on Sunday, December 13th, for the first count of the 34th Annual Winter Waterfowl Survey of sites extending from Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, Rhode Island, to Padanaram in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. The count was postponed a week due to a combination of high winds and bitter cold which are poor survey conditions; this was the second delay of the past three seasons.

While the last postponement in 2018, was enough to bring on colder conditions and more ice on coastal systems and freshwater wetlands further north attracted more birds, the reverse trend occurred this time. An overall warmer weather pattern and decline in ice coverage observed a year ago continued for this count, with temperatures soaring into the 60’s for a splendid day for surveying, but hardly a reminder we were doing the “winter” waterfowl survey! The overall warm weather pattern hit its peak on this day and hadn’t allowed for the gradual buildup of ice, and systems were ice free. While an extremely high tide occurred in the early morning, waterfowl are active throughout the day and some surveys were delayed to coincide with lower tides when many ducks, especially dabblers, are more visible.

swans on the slocum click to enlarge

So, knowing last season’s conditions and the low count that resulted, one would predict a decline in waterfowl for this survey, again due to the availability of food sources in freshwater areas to the north and west. The 4,427 waterfowl counted was indeed a decline from the 4,549 of 2019 to the lowest total since 2015. The largest decline occurred for mallards (-319), with bufflehead (-276), mute swan (-269), and Canada goose (-205), each also declining by at least 200 birds. These adaptable and widespread species had other wetlands available, including those in local parks near cities and suburban areas, and geese of course, were free to feed in nearby agricultural fields. Mallard numbers were down at Nonquit and Nannaquaket Ponds, Canada goose and bufflehead at the Westport River, and mute swan at Quicksand and Cockeast Ponds from 2019. Ruddy ducks, a common sight in some coastal ponds, were also down slightly.

The slightly higher overall count than might be expected under the balmy conditions and warmer weather pattern, was expressed with increases in certain species. Scaup showed the largest increase (+479) to 632 birds with large concentrations seen at Tunipus and Round Ponds. Both red-breasted and hooded mergansers increased and were abundant on Cockeast Pond where a particularly high concentration (123 birds) of “Hoodies” were seen. Dabblers showing modest increases included the common American black duck, which were scarce at Allens Pond, their usual haven, but more abundant on the Slocum

mixed dabbler flock click to enlarge

and Little Rivers. Two more dabbler species showing increases in recent years that increased slightly this count were Gadwall, which were abundant at Nonquit Marsh, and American wigeon, for which small flocks occurred at Cockeast and Tunipus Ponds. Notable rarities included a Eurasian wigeon at Cockeast Pond, a common merganser on the west branch of the Westport River, and both ring-necked ducks and redheads at Round Pond. Sites with the highest totals were Apponagansett Bay (698), Round Pond (466), and the Slocum River (456).

One possible explanation as to why some species increased, and the warm conditions did not cause steeper declines, were the drought conditions that continue to show their effects state-wide. Lower stream flow and groundwater levels, which have resulted in less water to support aquatic habitats, and warmer waters with reduced water quality (MA Division of Ecological Restoration, 2020 newsletter update), are effects which could result in more waterfowl seeking food in these coastal systems.

Stay tuned for results of the second count in January 2021, when more birds will arrive!