Harlequin Ducks Dazzle Group During Lloyd Center’s 29th Annual New Year’s Gooseberry Walk

click to enlarge

Gooseberry Neck in Westport is a long peninsular barrier island that juts south like a pointing finger, bisecting Buzzards Bay along the east shore and Rhode Island Sound to the west, with great views of the Elizabeth Islands offered at the very tip. Gooseberry’s history features extensive human use with a vast footprint. In the surrounding waters oil has spilled and ships have wrecked, and on the island itself there was once sheep grazing, World War II military activity (a lookout tower still remains), and multiple privately-owned residences. Residential living was made possible by a causeway constructed in 1913. (The island was historically accessible only via a sandbar at low tide.) All structures were ultimately wiped out by the 1938 and 1954 hurricanes, and in 1956 the 73-acre island was acquired by the state as a preserve.

Today the island is owned by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) as a part of Horseneck Beach State Reservation. From offshore fisherman to recreationists on the island, to the various wildlife species within the shrubby growth that through time overtook the island, Gooseberry’s resilience shines day in and day out.

Visitors walking the shores may find shellfish remnants, including piles of slipper shells (which over time replaced Blue Mussel which were historically more common), or a whelk egg case, a wandering Grey Seal, swarms of Monarchs, or mammals such as deer or mink. Avian diversity is high year-round and may include rare raptors such as Snowy and/or Short-eared Owls, Northern Harriers, and Peregrine Falcons flying low over shrubbery, dunes, or the barrier beach in search of prey.

Past and present Lloyd Center uses of the island have including shorebird protection, surveys for beached birds through the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET), and school programs focusing on Monarch Butterfly migration.

On January 1, the Lloyd Center carried forward an ongoing tradition, a guided walk led by Mark Mello, Research Director, on the shores of the island, taking in whatever the offshore views and island landscape have to offer. The focus tends to be on birding at a time of year when waterbirds and shorebirds are particularly abundant.

Harlequin flap! click to enlarge

As usually occurs, westerly winds were whipping on the Horseneck side, and the group was forced to the calmer east shore where the waterbirds seek refuge. Weather was seasonably cool and tides low enough that some intertidal cobble was visible. Along the shore, the piles of slipper shells were present en masse, a clue to the live shellfish community that exists offshore. Winter waterfowl species diversity was high and included Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Common Eider, Greater Scaup, Horseneck Grebe, Long-tailed Duck, Common Loon, and all three scoter species (Surf, Black, White-winged). These ducks arrive from as far as the Arctic in search of unfrozen waters that provide a food source. Shorebirds were relatively scarce, but in the rocky intertidal zone, the group saw a mixed flock of Sanderlings and Dunlin, the most common winter species, and a nice look at Ruddy Turnstones in winter plumage.

This year the Snowy Owl, present in most years, was yet to be reported, so it seemed that the bird to see would not be present. Little did we know that one duck species, the Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus), would put on a show that rivals the Snowy. Harlequins, when encountered, are usually seen near rocks surrounded by turbulent waters, where crustaceans, their primary winter food source, exist. The first duck remained in the water but approached the shoreline closely where the group stood, offering great photo opportunities. Then at the very tip, another Harlequin was present, and again approached us closely. Only this time, the duck, in order to rest from the turbulent sea, climbed up onto a rock, flapping its wings and offering various poses. The chestnut plumage and all patterns were superb in the sunlight, and ensured that this particular walk will be heralded as the year of the Harlequins.

Happy New Year, and see you on the next New Year’s walk and other Lloyd Center outings!

(Background from “The Secret History of Gooseberry Island” (New Bedford Guide) and Cornell Lab of Ornithology)