As of February 1st, the Lloyd Center “Waterfowl Team” completed the 2014/2015 version of the Annual Winter Waterfowl Survey. This was the 26th such inventory of waterfowl conducted by the Lloyd Center, utilizing the coastal estuaries and ponds that cover shoreline starting with Apponagansett Bay in Dartmouth, Massachusetts and extending to the Sakonnet River in Tiverton, Rhode Island.
Each system surveyed hosts a unique assemblage of waterfowl that relies upon the systems as a food source when freshwater areas in breeding habitats freeze over. Species encountered include our two most familiar species, Canada Goose and Mallard, the obscure but increasingly common Hooded Merganser, the once common but declining American Black Duck, and numerous other species that descend upon our region from the north each winter.
As is often the case for the count occurring in early meteorological winter, the December 6, 2014 count occurred amidst a relatively mild stretch of weather. Ice was totally absent and rendered waterways “open for business” from a waterfowl perspective, but warmer weather may have delayed migration. Add in an extremely high tide which makes birds more dispersed, and lower December numbers were expected. Indeed, there were 4,988 total waterfowl counted in December (slightly higher than last December), and 6,364 counted in February (nearly double that of last January/February) this season.
In December, the total was actually the highest December count observed since 2007 (see website: https://lloydcenter.org/winter-waterfowl/). Briggs Marsh, a relatively vast system similar to Allens Pond, had the most birds (1,009), the highest diversity, and the largest single concentration of birds of any site that day. This concentration was 455 Mute Swans, the highest grand total of Mute Swans in the history of the count for December.
Other milestones occurred for two less common “dabbler” species. These included the highest ever Gadwall (256) total for December, and the highest American Wigeon (143) total in December since 2007, with the largest concentration of these species also occurring at Briggs Marsh. For declines, Canada Goose and Black Duck were down slightly, with many Canada Geese seen feeding in nearby fields which hadn’t yet received the first snows. Black ducks are in decline in general, but tend to be harder to detect in nearby creeks during highest tides. Red-breasted mergansers produced the lowest totals since 2009 and were the biggest observed decline for the December count.
Fast forward to February 1, when the snowless winter became anything but! A blizzard had just passed, bringing arctic cold and ice to every body of water except portions of the largest estuaries. Although migration was in full swing and a lower tide occurred that makes for better counting conditions, the ice was certain to reduce numbers. If not for a huge showing by Canada Geese, which comprised well over half the birds counted and was most abundant on the Slocum River, this total would have been excessively low.
Black duck numbers were way down as were dabbling ducks in general. Mallard was one exception with the species increasing for this survey, taking advantage of the limited unfrozen water available in areas such the Slocum River headwaters at Russells Mills Landing, where they were found in high numbers (355). Like Canada Goose, Mallard have thrived near human use areas where they are also fed and thus have increased significantly.