In early November of 1983, Cape birder and prototypical citizen scientist Blair Nikula organized members of the Cape Cod Bird Club to count waterfowl on the freshwater lakes and ponds of the Cape. They covered more than 200 ponds that first year, tallying 4,000 ducks, loons, and grebes of 22 species.
The count has continued every year since, and now averages closer to 10,000 individuals of up to 30 species. The survey now takes place on the first weekend of December, which means that this weekend kicks off what has become an eventful season of winter bird counting on the Cape and Islands.
Waterfowl are one of those groups of birds that are actually more abundant in winter than summer in these parts. For some species, like Common Eiders and Buffleheads, the Cape is a destination of choice, a sort of all-inclusive winter resort for discerning ducks. Freshwater species like scaup and mergansers nest well north of Cape Cod, but winter here by the thousands in some years. And when ponds to our north freeze up later in the winter, waterfowl refugees flock to the relatively mild Cape and Islands seeking open water.
So who are the birds we’ll be stalking this weekend? Densely feathered and often sporting vibrant, iridescent colors, ducks are among our most beautiful local residents. Quiet, lily-covered ponds may be hiding one of the great works of art among North American bird species, the Wood Duck. Arrayed in a rainbow of colors, male Wood Ducks are a favorite among artists, birders, and hunters alike. More common off Cape, Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities alongside woodsy ponds.
Not far behind in the looks department is another cavity nesting, swamp loving species, the Hooded Merganser. In dog terms, their color palette is that classically beautiful “tricolor” combination of black, white, and tan. Certain ponds that I survey in Eastham may have well over a hundred of these stunning diving ducks working over the local minnow population.
Some of the more sought after species include Canvasbacks and Redheads, two handsome ducks that have declined precipitously here over the last 30 years, having apparently shifted their continent-wide migration and wintering areas west. Canvasback counts used to top 1000, but now several years pass without a single one. But a few can still be found here and there later in the season, especially in Falmouth, rewarding the birders who venture out in deep winter with an intense and kinetic bit of color.
But the waterfowl survey is not just about glitz and glamor – it’s about accurately counting the common as well as the rare, the plain as well as the colorful, which means a lot of time spent tallying Mallards, American Black Ducks, and Canada Geese. If it has any birds at all, a pond will at least have some combination of these most common of our freshwater fowl. But the most common winter species of all, topping even the Mallard, is actually a little charmer known as the Bufflehead. These adaptable, bathtub toy-sized diving ducks can be found on just about any pond or cove, where they dine very well on snails and small crabs. Even their name is cute, and many a Cape Codder looks forward to their arrival each fall.
While we probably have enough counters for this year, you can get more information about the Cape Cod Waterfowl Census on the Cape Cod Bird Club website, where you can even download the full historical data set. Until then, get out a map, find your local ponds, and start tallying what you find. You can enter the results on Cornell’s eBird site, where the data will be available to anyone. Once you think you have what it takes, and can tell a female mallard from a female black duck at 100 paces with one eye closed, then I think we can find room for you on next year’s count.