Waterfowl & Wine Blog
Ten intrepid participants joined Alula Birding & Natural History Tours for its “Waterfowl & Wine” trip on March 4th, which started at Montauk Point and ended at Duckwalk Vineyards in Southampton. Given Long Island’s latitude and diverse wetland habitats, ranging from open ocean to sheltered saltwater bays, to larger lakes and smaller ponds, it is one of the best places in the United States to see a diversity and abundance of waterfowl (ducks, swans, and geese). With some planning and the great aide of Lady Luck it is hypothetically possible to see as many as 39 waterfowl species.
After making two stops to pick up participants we headed to Montauk Point. On the way we stopped along Route 27 in Wainscot to inspect a large flock of Canada Geese foraging in a fallow corn field and noticed a juvenile Snow Goose among their midst. After registering the first two waterfowl species of the day (we ended up seeing 20), we continued east reaching Montauk Point State Park where we quickly saw several hundred Common Eiders, including adult males and females, and a number of immature males, a sign of a healthy population. Among the eiders were all three species of scoters – Surf (also known colloquially as skunkhead), White-winged, and Black or common. What draws these amazingly hardy sea ducks to the Point in such large numbers each year are the very extensive blue mussel beds that fringe the Point. The birds spend a good part of the day diving in water 10-20 meters deep to get the mussels and it is interesting to watch them as they fly back to the better foraging spots after the currents around the Point have swept them away. We also saw Red-breasted Mergansers and several Northern Gannets (a “life” bird for several participants), including one bird that came fairly close to shore.
From Montauk Point State Park we headed south to Camp Hero State Park, the less well-known of the two state parks at the Island’s eastern tip. We birded from the bluffs that overlook the ocean; being up 50-60 feet above the water provides an excellent vantage point to see the birds active in the water below. We watched the same species here as on the north side of the Point and many Common Loons too, a few of which were beginning to molt into their breeding or alternate plumage. At these bluffs are a number of interesting formations known as hoodoos, which I first saw in Bryce Canyon National Park. There they are made of sandstone while here these erosional features are made of unconsolidated sand, clay, pebbles, and larger rocks. They come in a countless number of shapes, even changing by the day, especially if it is raining or windy. Some look like ice cream cones while others look a bit like the light bulbs shaped as flames used in candelabras; one vaguely reminded my of the torched flame which is held aloft by the Statue of Liberty.
We left the Point, making a brief stop at Deep Hollow Ranch in pursuit of a Greater White-fronted Goose which had been reported there. After a thirty second search we found the bird among the several hundred Canada Geese that were grazing in the pasture.
From there we made a brief stop at Kirk Park, located at the southern end of Fort Pond on the western edge of the hamlet of Montauk. We were treated to a swimming muskrat, a lone female Hooded Merganser, a few Mallards, a pair of Mute Swans, a flock of Gadwall, and two Pied-billed Grebes.
Our next stop was to the northern end of Napeague Harbor to take a break from looking for waterfowl and search for a Snowy Owl that had been seen there a few days prior to the trip. While we failed in our quest to see the owl, we did see a few Common Goldeneye, Buffleheads, a single Black Duck, and a mixed flock of shorebirds that contained Ruddy Turnstones, Dunlins, and Sanderlings. It was here that we took a break to eat, enjoying a boxed lunch in the welcoming warmth of the cars!
We continued west and next visited Mill Pond in Watermill. This pond, just north of the hamlet, is a fairly reliable place for Common Mergansers and we weren’t disappointed as we saw four birds immediately upon scanning. They were joined by a large flock of several hundred basic plumage Ruddy Ducks located in the northwest corner of the pond. A few scaup, whom based on the profile of their head all appeared to be Greater Scaup, were intermingled among the flock of ruddys, as were a few snoozing Canvasbacks.
Our last birding stop in search of waterfowl was to Old Town Pond south of Southampton Village. Results were disappointing at this usually reliable pond. We did add another species for the day though – nine Northern Shovelers. These ducks have a very distinctive profile due to their disproportionately large bills (used to strain small food items from the water column), and are easy to identify even from several hundred yards away.
From there it was onto Duck Walk Vineyards where, for the last hour of the day, our group enjoyed tasting half a dozen or so varieties of white, red, and dessert wines that the winery had to offer. A good time was had by one and all!!