male common eider; click to enlarge

by Jamie Bogart, Lloyd Center Research Associate

The scene was familiar on this the 30th Annual New Year’s Day walk led by Lloyd Center Research Director, Mark Mello, at Gooseberry Island.  In addition to shaking off the holiday cobwebs, people showed up to get some needed exercise and enjoy some environmental education. With Buzzards Bay to the east, and Rhode Island Sound to the west, this unique barrier island peninsula offers a rich variety of both marine and terrestrial species over a relatively small area. Surrounding the island are a variety of seabirds, including abundant winter waterfowl, a small number of seals, and remnants of creatures living below the water’s surface that collect along the beach. The low shrub cover on the island interior, and dune habitat on the fringe, attracts a rich variety of land birds and mammals. 

The day’s weather is always magnified on Gooseberry Island as the winds send waves crashing ashore, especially along the causeway, under harsh conditions. On this day (although we wouldn’t witness the ocean’s fury) sunny skies, seasonable temperatures, and a slight breeze, made for great walking and birding conditions. The only restriction was precautions taken due to COVID-19, which for this walk included no birding scope, which involves people standing in line to see a bird and handling the scope. As it turns out, the birds were in close with the high tide so only binoculars were necessary, and many birds were clearly visible even with the naked eye.

common eider flock; click to enlarge

Scoters (which includes three species) and Common Eider were the most abundant birds seen. Both sea ducks nest in boreal regions in the far north; scoters more inland on lakes and eiders on tundra ponds closer to saltwater (Sibley, 2014). To start the walk which traditionally begins along the east shore, we first took advantage of a small flock of Black Scoters, the smallest of the scoter ducks distinguished by the all black coloration and bright orange bill on the males, on the Horseneck Beach State Reservation side. Back along the beach of the east shore, the eiders were in particularly close, including a tame female that appeared healthy but allowed close approach.  Further out, both white-winged and surf scoters were visible. A Harlequin Duck was again seen, this brilliantly-colored and highly uncommon bird, usually active near rocks in splashing waves, with this bird preening and floating in the waves off the southeast shore, visible with binoculars.  Scaup, Common Goldeneye, and Bufflehead, three common ducks of the estuary, were also present further offshore.

shorebirds in flight; click to enlarge

While not quite as abundant as the scoters and eiders, the duck species of the outing was undoubtedly the Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis), which offered close views along most of the east shoreline. A combination of striking plumage, higher numbers than usually seen at Gooseberry, and the close views, made these divers an attraction. Long-tailed Ducks also nest in tundra ponds and winter in the region, but are more common out in the open bay than along rocky shores such as Gooseberry. Long-tailed ducks and eiders both undergo complex molts, and feed on crustaceans and mollusks which were likely brought in close with the high tide which had the birds feeding in close.  

Overwintering shorebird species were also seen at close range, including tight-mixed flocks of Sanderlings and Dunlins, the most common winter shorebirds, onshore along the beach, and small numbers of Ruddy Turnstones on rocks in the intertidal zone.

As always, this was a great way to kick off the New Year we’ve longed for more than ever. Keep an eye on our website for information on future nature walks!