Rainy December’s the Norm for Lloyd Center Winter Waterfowl Survey

Jamie winter waterfowl count

On December 10, 2023, Lloyd Center staff and volunteers surveyed coastal ponds and estuaries from Sakonnet Point in Tiverton, Rhode Island, to Padanaram in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, for the 37th annual Lloyd Center Winter Waterfowl Survey. The ongoing study depicts trends in abundance, diversity, and habitat use for migratory, overwintering waterfowl in select southeastern Massachusetts coastal embayments.  The survey is a useful indicator of habitat conditions in both wintering and breeding ranges as influenced by short-term weather trends, land use effects, longer term climate change impacts, and ultimately the importance of the waterways in our region to wintering waterfowl.

Dating back to the most recent storm cancellation year (2020), seasonable to balmy temperatures, minimal ice coverage, and a rain event, conjure images of uncharacteristic warmth and climate change. This year, following a cancellation due to heavy rain, the December survey happened the following Sunday before yet another rainstorm passed through that evening. In days to follow, a major coastal rainstorm passed through in a month that, even in coastal areas, usually features the first snowfall.  While the 2020 and 2021 surveys occurred under moon tides, both last year and this count occurred under moderate, ebbing tides and calm conditions, which allows for an annual comparison.

A total of 4,839 birds was counted, and an average of 4,868 from December 2020-2023, a four-year time frame. Sites with highest abundance included the Westport River south of Hix Bridge (655), Apponagansett Bay (612), and Nannaquaket Pond (534), those with high amounts of open water. The sites had high numbers of Bufflehead (1,194) and Canada Goose (1,083), the most abundant species, including a switch from last year when geese were most abundant. Highest concentrations included Bufflehead in Nannaquaket Pond (260) and the Westport River south of Hix Bridge (241), and Canada Geese in the Westport River south of Hix Bridge (281) and Richmond Pond (268).      

A decline by 781 total birds from December 2022 (5,620) a year ago, included a decrease in Canada Geese (-405) and American Black Duck (-340), surface feeders with considerable breeding populations in the northeast and within our region. Last December cooler temps and larger flocks of geese on some coastal ponds, and black ducks in estuaries where they are usually most abundant, were indicative of ice on freshwater systems inland. For this count slightly warmer temperatures and a higher water table from rainfall likely allowed these species and

mallards (-75) which also breed locally, to occupy shallow inland wetlands. Moist fields as usual, provided grassy forage for geese due to lack of ice or snow cover, further limiting their abundance in coastal embayments.  Divers showing subtle declines included scaup (-166), Bufflehead (-115) and Hooded Merganser (-75), with freshwater likely attracting small numbers of divers as well. Divers also utilize the open bay, such that true use of coastal environments is trickier to assess.   

Some species breeding further north and west into the prairie pothole regions were likely driven to our region due to cold trends and ice coverage, including American Wigeon (+104) for which sizeable flocks occurred in Cockeast (78) and Tunipus (46) Ponds; Ruddy Duck (+266) which congregated at Cockeast Pond (252); and Ring-necked Ducks (+82) which were concentrated at Round Pond (45) and Tunipus Pond (31).  The Ruddy Duck concentration caused high totals at Cockeast Pond (449), which sits adjacent to the Westport River, and hosts a diversity of birds when open water is available.      

Although December waterfowl numbers are usually lower due to later migration schedules alone, stormy trends featuring rain instead of snow, as seen in recent years since the last December cancellation, could indicate more urgency in a time of climate change concerns needed to protect many species beyond the boundaries of estuaries and salt ponds.  If birds are to target local freshwater ponds, forested wetlands, and the like instead of our coastal systems, landscape level preservation including these areas is necessary to support the winter waterfowl resource we are surveying. Important results of this survey include both the presence and absence of birds in these systems. 

Stay tuned for results of and conclusions from the all-important late January waterfowl count, and the entire 2023-2024 winter waterfowl survey!