January Rains Again Impact Lloyd Center’s Winter Waterfowl Count

By Jamie Bogart, Lloyd Center Research Associate

The meteorological winter count for the Lloyd Center’s 37th Annual Winter Waterfowl survey that took place on Saturday, January 27, 2024, involved Lloyd Center staff and volunteers at sites from Sakonnet Point in Rhode Island to Padanaram Harbor in Massachusetts. Abundance of migratory waterfowl along coastlines traditionally increases in late January as snow and ice reduce accessibility of freshwater areas. Like the January of 2023 count, conditions were stellar with no wind, just a morning drizzle to dampen things and fog one’s scope.

That drizzle symbolized overall weather trends which again featured extensive rainfall rather than snowstorms. The rainy forecast on Sunday moved the count to Saturday, which started damp due to rains the day before, so we squeezed the survey between all day rain events.  A mild, wet trend with at most minimal ice coverage locally again left plenty of shallow freshwater available, with a raised water table also enhancing the morning high tide and causing salt marsh creeks to overflow. These factors can reduce numbers in estuaries or cause birds to be dispersed and difficult to detect.

A total of 6,704 birds was an increase of 1,305 from a year ago. Including the December total of 4,839, a grand total of 11,543 birds for the season was an increase of 524 birds. Canada Geese increased by 1,415 for this count, including 1,036 on the Westport River East Branch and 800 on the Slocums River, two primary goose locations. This doesn’t include large flocks seen foraging in many fields during the count. Geese throughout New England migrate to coastal systems during winter, with the increase for the count suggestive of an influx of longer distance migrants, whether due to a population increase or harsh conditions northward.  Nonquit Pond (600) had the next highest total, including the one sizeable American Black Duck (226) congregation and abundant Canada Geese (334). Apponagansett Bay (576) had the only high scaup (160) count, and the highest mallard (150) total of all sites, mallards gathered where freshwater empties into the system at the northern reaches. Gadwall often mix mallards there, but were scarce for this count.

Although rain was extensive, the landscape was drier than last January, when rain-induced ponds appeared across the landscape and the estuary levels were extremely high. Traces of ice observed this count on select estuaries suggest some ice on shallow ponds inland. The possible net decrease in freshwater availability, combined with shallower estuary waters compared to January 2023, could explain the slight increase of American Black Ducks and Mallards which dabble at the surface, and Mute Swans, which feed off bottom vegetation. Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Ruddy Ducks, and Ring-necked ducks, all divers common to ponded coastal habitats, also increased. “Ruddys” had the highest January totals in eight years, most at Cockeast Pond (78), perhaps also due to harsher conditions northward, and ultimately lack of ice on the coastal ponds.   

Overall more species showed decreases, most notably Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Northern Pintail, all less common dabblers, and Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, and Red-breasted Merganser, common divers to shallow flowing systems. Select other uncommon species (scoters, eiders, Redhead, Green-winged Teal) to the count declined or were absent, decreasing waterfowl diversity for this survey. These decreases continue to suggest impacts from climate change that are causing warmer winters, and in turn landscape level habitat alterations that directly impact distribution of winter waterfowl.