Fish & Chips & Winter Waterfowl

Today my father and I drove to Cape Ann, had a delicious plate of fish-and-chips for lunch in Gloucester, and spent the early afternoon driving from Gloucester Harbor up to Rockport and checking out the smorgasbord of winter waterfowl on the coast.

New England’s beaches are transformed in the winter; the crowds vanish and a unique mix of birds show up to seek food and shelter close to shore. Many are species that breed far to the north or normally live away from shore. Here’s what we saw.

Gloucester Harbor had a small flotilla of common eiders bobbing in the surf near the Gloucester Fisherman statue, as well as herring and ring-billed gulls scattered about. It’s entirely possible there were more species mixed in with the ducks and gulls, but I couldn’t pick them out.

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Common Eiders, male (left) and female (right). Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=701012

The harbor was choppy and the wind coming off the water was enough to cut through the warm sun. I never claimed to be a particularly intrepid birder, and my father has a particularly low cold tolerance, so we went back to the car.

We drove up toward Rockport, and soon found a lovely, sheltered beach just to the west of downtown. A large group of mallards was hanging out in this cove, along with more gulls — including a great black-backed gull. Made sense that the mallards would stay here, because the geography kept the water almost as placid as a summer pond.

Scanning the edges of the rocky outcroppings on either side of the bay, I finally spotted my prize: a trio of harlequin ducks, two males and one female, swimming out from behind a promontory. These tiny, gorgeous ducks live way up north in rushing mountain streams during the summer, and winter on the rocky coasts of New England in winter.

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A male (drake) harlequin duck. (Peter Massas, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9736138

Unfortunately, they ducked (ha!) back behind the rocks after just a few moments. My father and I stayed at this little beach a bit longer, savoring the view, and gave a lesson in basic winter waterfowl identification a one of the several people who strolled by. We were both shocked when a house finch started singing from somewhere nearby — and kept it up until we left. Perhaps he was getting in some vocal warm-ups before spring?

We drove a bit further up the road, and pulled in at another sheltered beach — just where the harlequins should be. Sure enough, they were right where we expected, standing on the tip of the same jetty they’d vanished behind earlier. This stretch of beach had its own pleasures, not least of which included a red-breasted merganser, a trio of buffleheads diving in near synchronicity, and — a new bird for us — a razorbill.

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Razorbill. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=248528

Razorbills are part of the same family as puffins, the alcids, and are almost never visible from shore. Like puffins they spend almost all of their time at sea away from the coast and in far northern waters — but in winter, especially after storms, they can be found down the coast of New England. The razorbill’s profile is unmistakable, and our small scope gave me a perfect look at that distinctly heavy beak with its thin white markings. Razorbills and other alcids swim with their wings, not their feet, and it was my first chance to appreciate their distinct diving posture: tipping forward with their wings spread wide.

We stayed at this beach for a while, enjoying a perfectly clear day with the sun at our backs. The lighting was perfect, and we got really lovely views of most of the birds: I could make out the green sheen on the buffleheads’ heads and the rich palette of rusty-brown, black, blue, and white that make up the harlequins’ painterly plumage.

Eventually, we left, and headed home. We weren’t on Cape Ann long but we had a delicious meal and saw a bunch of beautiful birds and just as much beautiful coastal scenery. What more can you ask for?

Full Species List:
– common eiders (many many)
– bufflehead (3)
– razorbill
– mallards (many many)
– herring gulls (many)
– ring-billed gulls (many)
– great black-backed gulls (few)
– red-breasted merganser
– cormorant (unknown species, too far away)
– harlequin ducks (3)
– house finch (singing)

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