The Joys of Winter Birding

by: Virginia Andrews

Don’t birds go south for the winter? Yes, and for a whole host of species, Nantucket is their idea of south.

To birders, winter means ducks: pond ducks, sea ducks and more.


The cold season presents a very different picture from other times of year. To humans, Brrr! Why leave a warm bed? But for birds insulated with down, layers of fat and waterproof feathers, it’s their Miami Beach or Caribbean vacation. Hardy birds that nested further north are happy to find open water and abundant food. Birders may find it a bit more challenging, but good birds make it worth the effort.

Pond ducks such as American Wigeon feed commensally with American Coot, which is actually in the rail family. The Wigeon dabble, the Coots dive, bringing up the pond weeds eaten by both. Eurasian Wigeon are also unusual but regular on Nantucket. Two kinds of Scaup are regular and numerous. Sometimes a European relative, the Tufted Duck, joins a flock.


The north head of Long Pond is a favorite spot, but used by hunters as well as birders. Canvasbacks, Northern Shovelers, Gadwall and Ring-necked Ducks are also fun to watch. Nantucket is one of the best places in Massachusetts to see Redheads.

Hummock and Miacomet ponds are prime locations. Lingering shorebirds, Pied-billed Grebe and Common Gallinule can also appear.

Bufflehead, small and cute but fast fliers, can be found in either saltor fresh-water habitat.


Sometimes in rafts of 50, they all dive together and pop up like a bunch of corks. Three species of Mergansers – Red-breasted, Hooded and the locally uncommon Common Merganser – also use salt-water bays and marshes as well as fresh-water ponds.

Sea watching is best with a telescope, but the rewards are great. To the naked eye, empty ocean. With the aid of good optics, it teems with life. Loons – both Common and Red-breasted – seek salt water when northern ponds freeze. Northern Gannets whirl and dive with a glorious splash. Alcids such as Razorbills fly by. Even the occasional Dovekie may cruise along shore, flying through wind or wave with equal ease. White-winged gulls such as Bonaparte’s, Iceland and Glaucous are a winter treat.

A pair of Hooded Mergansers on the ice. - COURTESY OF VIRGINIA ANDREWS

Among the most numerous of the sea ducks are the Scoters. We see three species of them: Black, Surf and Whitewinged. Flocks of Black or Whitewinged Scoters often dot a boat-ride across Nantucket Sound, riding the waves, staring incuriously as the slow ferry passes, scattering away to safety from the fast ferry. Black Scoters are recognized by their orange bills, Whitewinged by the two windows of white plumage shown in flight or the inverted horizontal comma in back of the eye when at rest. Surf Scoters, called “Skunk-heads” by the locals, tend to stick closer to shore. With a cap of white on the forehead and a corresponding patch on the back, divided by a black stripe, it’s easy to remember them by the nickname.

Another winter treat is the Long-tailed Duck, equally impetuous, and sometimes seen in great numbers off the west end of Nantucket. Named for the two long tail-plumes of the male, it is gregarious and chatty. Commuting daily at dawn and dusk from Nantucket Sound to the shoals about 50 miles south of the island, they travel in long double strings of a dozen to 20 or 30 birds behind a leader. When food is concentrated and birds are numerous, the strings become streams, which can become a river, a steady, uncountable flow, an inexorable surge, lasting more than an hour. Half a million or more birds have been estimated when the population is at its peak. This appears to be a cyclical phenomenon, with such numbers in the 1980s and then again in the early 2000s.

But of the sea ducks, perhaps the most sought-after species on many a list is the Harlequin Duck, also known as Histrionicus histrionicus to the science-minded. Named after a character in the Commedia dell’arte who wore a costume of varicolored triangles and performed tricks, Harlequin Ducks are unique in a number of ways.

Strong swimmers and divers, they are one of the few North American birds that enjoys rough water and rocky bottom, enduring more broken bones than any other species. Their “tricks” are diving as a pair or group, and popping up in a different spot, swimming the rough waves and chasing each other.

For sheer beauty they are hard to beat. In the low-angled sun of a winter day the male’s blue head and body plumage, with eccentric white markings and warm chestnut sides, positively glows. Females are brown with dots and splotches of white, but easy to pick out when the pair is together.

That is another thing that makes Harlequins unique: they are unusually monogamous. They also have strong site-fidelity, depending on a return to the same location every winter to reunite with their mate of the previous summer.

They breed inland by white-water streams or boulder-filled rivers. The female builds her nest on a cliff-ledge, on the ground, or in a hollow tree. Once incubation begins, the male leaves for the coast, joining groups of other males while they molt. On the east coast of North America, males do their guy thing on the ocean off Newfoundland or Greenland.

The young are fully able to move around as soon as they hatch, but the female takes them to quieter water for the first month of life. In the east they winter from the coasts of Newfoundland and Greenland south to Virginia. Every year they return to the same stretch of rocky coast or cobble-bottomed ocean, where the pairs reunite.

Banding records show that they can live to 20 years in the wild. But if one of a pair has died, the survivor finds a new partner. For young birds, winter in the right location begins the dating game where they seek out their mates.

On Nantucket they can sometimes be found near the jetties. But the best places are off the Sconset Bluff. A large hunk of basalt has been a favorite haul-out, but a good telescope is undeniably helpful.

So, when the weather outside is frightful, with good visibility birders can still find it delightful. True, it can be bitterly cold to stand around squinting through a scope. Sometimes, even when the thermometer shows temperatures hovering above freezing, the sheer rawness of a damp 30 mph wind can be a challenge. So, wherever we go for winter birding, we always try to find shelter from the wind – a dune, a bush – even getting the right parking angle to huddle in the lee of the car can help.

The other important factor is to dress in layers, wool preferred. Many synthetics appear to have been created by people who have never been, and probably will never venture, outdoors. Shun anything labeled “water resistant.” It will most likely become soaked through in 30 seconds or less. Hold out for waterproof. With insulated boots and windand waterproof parkas with hoods, it is possible to actually enjoy being outside. Remember, there’s no bad weather, just inadequate clothing. So, suit up and go looking for winter birds. ///

Virginia “Ginger” Andrews has had a lifelong exposure to birding through her mother, the late Edith Andrews, a noted ornithologist. Ginger leads bird walks for the Maria Mitchell Association and writes “Island Bird Sightings,” a weekly bird column, for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.


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