Photo credit: Arcos de la Frontera; Cádiz, España, 2015-12-08
Winter is Coming
The warblers, except for an occasional yellow-rump, have left Peaks. Ditto the Red-wing Blackbirds and the Tree Swallows. With the advance of the seasons, to see our winter visitors, turn your birding attention to the sea. Off the Backshore, joining our year-round resident Common Eiders, the scoters will arrive. White-winged Scoters are the largest of the three; Black Scoters, the smallest.
You will see a smattering of the former, and often large flocks of the latter. Look first for the industrial-strength bill, used for crushing clams and crustaceans.
The White-winged Scoter will show a streak of white at the flank when afloat, with a slight “comma” of white behind the
eye in the male.
The Black Scoter, with no white accents, sports a very prominent “butter knob” of orange-yellow at the base of the bill.
The third scoter of the three, the Surf Scoter, is between the other two in size. Nick-named “skunk head”,
you can see why, in the photo of three males with a female. Notice the “scoter type” bill for crushing clams.
The largest flocks of Black Scoters I have seen have been off Evergreen Landing, but way out, just to the northeast of Great Diamond, toward Crow Island. (For those of you who don’t know, that is Hussey Sound and it is quite deep, falling off sharply from the Diamond Cove shoreline at five feet, to 70-100 feet. Must be a great clamming area.) Commonly, I can’t even see them until I scan with binoculars, and then, there they are.
Continuing with the winter sea ducks, let’s look at four more species.
You will see Buffleheads, usually in small flocks, most commonly in Diamond Pass, in the shallower water. They feed on insects, larvae, and small fish, rather than clams. They are shy, dive quickly, and seem never to resurface. They are small and the male has a white “bonnet” behind the eye. His partner will show a smaller white streak behind the eye. They are rarely seen alone, and much less common off Backshore.
Goldeneyes are often seen alone, have the large white cheek spot in front of the eye, and of course, will show you that killer golden eye.
Black Guillemots are not black in winter, but mottled. Most commonly alone, they tend to stay farther off shore, beyond the eiders, beyond the breakers, and you will never seen them as well as in this photo unless you use a spotting scope, or are in a boat around Ram Island.
Lastly in this blog, a favorite: the Long-tailed Duck. We called this the Old Squaw until political correctness intervened. You will see them off both coasts, but best observed off Evergreen Landing, directly across toward Great Diamond. Small flocks of them gather there, and they … yodel. Yes! Or call it silly laughter. Don’t miss it.
A few points in closing: you want binoculars for Christmas; if you have kids, start them birding young - they love it, and they rapidly will become better birders than we are. And lastly, I would be remiss if I did not introduce my co-birder for this blog.
Sam Wainright, a PhD professor of natural history and marine biology at The Coast Guard Academy, has recently retired and has moved to Peaks full time. He will be writing these blogs with me. He has sharp eyes, a vast knowledge of all things natural, and an especial knack for seeing the rare bird.
A case in point: Sam pointed out a bird I had never before seen, not on Peaks, not anywhere. The Great Rusty Heron. You will find it on Island Avenue, on the left, on your way toward Evergreen Landing. I checked recently. It hasn’t moved.
Written and Photographs by: Michael LaCombe (except where otherwise noted)
Posted by: Patty Wainright
Reviewed by: Patty Wainright, Sam Wainright, Marty, and Michelle Brown