by Jamie Bogart, Lloyd Center Research Associate
On Sunday, December 4th, Lloyd Center staff and volunteers returned to coastal systems from the Sakonnet Point region in Rhode Island to Padanaram Harbor in Dartmouth, MA, for “count one” of the 36th Annual Winter Waterfowl Survey. The count seeks to determine waterfowl habitat use trends in Southeastern New England, and to some extent, depicts population trends for species.
Weather conditions were very similar to a year ago, with seasonably cool temperatures and low wind; again, stellar conditions for detecting birds. Unlike last December when the count occurred under moon tide, this year tides were moderate. The count total of 5,620 birds was the highest total since the 2018 December count, and is an increase by 1,034 from a year ago.
The surge was primarily due to Canada Geese, which increased by 651 birds to 1,488 this year. The majority of geese were distributed between Nonquit Pond (676), the largest pond with human-made restrictions, and the vast Westport River estuary (536), both of which attract geese.
Habitat conditions improved in estuaries due to lower tides, and helped explain the large numbers of geese in the Westport River after almost no geese there a year ago. Considering many geese were likely also present in fields, one wonders if recent winter weather further north sent some migrant birds our way and increased numbers.
Modest increases in the three most common estuary species (American Black Duck, Bufflehead, and Red-breasted Merganser) are also likely due to more accessible food sources due to lower waters, and a falling tide which can attract birds to especially flowing systems during the count. Allens Pond (277) had the highest black duck abundance, and for combined neighboring sites where black ducks are common, the Slocum River / Little River complex (332) had similar totals, but a slight shift from Little River to the Slocum River this year, while the Westport River complex total (251) increased considerably. Bufflehead increased and were highest in the Westport on the East Branch (402), while Red-breasted Mergansers were found at Slocum River / Little River (79) where they were absent last year. Nannaquackett Pond, the second largest pond with human restrictions, had a large increase in birds, including the Bufflehead (262), Mallard (134), and Red-breasted Merganser (111); Mallard and merganser reaching their highest totals at this pond, and Mallard being the one other dabbler showing modest increases.
Declines in some less-common dabblers were due perhaps to some variation in migration schedules from a year ago for these more long-distance migrants, compared to both American Black Ducks and Mallards, which included more local birds. Other less common divers which were again numerous or showed increases, included scaup which increased considerably with large flocks seen in Cockeast (154) and Tunipus Ponds (105), Common Eider (60), which returned to the Westport Harbor, and Ruddy Ducks, which declined from last year’s high totals but
still had sizeable flocks at Cockeast (51), Richmond (58), and Round Ponds (63). A Redhead appeared at Cockeast Pond as the one rarity seen during the count.
Other than the Westport River (1,588) which increased by 545 birds due mainly to Canada Geese, numbers were highest at Nonquit Pond (727) also due to geese, and Nannaquackett Pond (581), due to a more diverse assemblage mentioned above.
Tune in next year for “count two” and the overall assessment of winter waterfowl for the 2022/2023 season!