By Paul Hicks
Many of us grew up with Mother Goose stories like the “Ugly Duckling” (which turned out to be a beautiful swan) and Aesop’s fable about the goose that laid the golden egg. Perhaps it was those tales, along with others like Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” and Paul Gallico’s “Snow Goose,” that sparked my interest in these versatile birds. They can walk and fly but also swim, and some can dive.
Living near Long Island Sound as well as Playland Lake, Blind Brook, and Milton Harbor provides great opportunities to see ducks, geese, and swans, especially between late fall and early spring, when many species migrate through or linger. Although you may need binoculars or a spotting scope to get the best sightings, these birds, like the proverbial “sitting ducks” are generally more stationary and easier to identify than most songbirds.
Birdwatchers often concentrate first on a bird’s “giss” (or “jizz”), a term used to describe the overall appearance of a bird garnered from such features as shape, posture, size, and coloration combined with voice, habitat, and location. For example, if the bird is large, white, long-necked, and swimming, it is likely to be a swan, but determining which species requires knowing more details.
Canada (not “Canadian”) Geese are the most prevalent species of goose in this area, and the only one you are likely to see feeding on land or hear “honking” overhead. If you see a white goose mixed in with a flock of Canadas, it is likely to be a Snow goose, but if the geese look much smaller and with blacker heads than Canadas, they are probably Brants. They prefer to gather in shallow bays and marshes, like the ones around Milton Point, and make a low murmuring sound.
A good way to distinguish between species of ducks is to watch how they feed-by dabbling near the surface, often with heads below water, or by diving. By far the most common of the former type is the Mallard, which often can be found in Blind Brook and the pond at Rye Town Park. The male’s green head is distinctive, but the female’s drab brown color is similar to the somewhat darker American Black Duck.
When the rivers, lakes, and bays freeze further north, many less common waterfowl of all types stop and often stay in our local waters. Among the most enjoyable are the Common Loons, which are much more associated with the lakes of Maine and the Adirondacks than Long Island Sound. Like many birds, Loons change color from their distinctive breeding plumage (black head and checkered back) to their current duller coloration. If you spot one, be prepared for it to dive frequently and stay under water for extended periods of time, but your patience will be rewarded.
Another extraordinary winter visitor is the Long-tailed (formerly called “Oldsquaw) Duck, which is classified as a sea duck and, therefore found more in open water. The male’s long tail and largely white winter appearance make it easy to identify, if you are lucky enough to spot one.
Easier to spot is the Bufflehead, a small diving duck that is found closer to shore in the Sound, Milton Harbor, and Playland Lake. In winter plumage, the male has a distinctive black forehead with a large white patch at the back of the head, while females are a dullish gray brown.
This brief overview of waterfowl spotting would be incomplete without a reference to waterfowl hunting in our area, which has an effect on the numbers and types of birds that are found during the various hunting seasons. Regulated by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/28888), the seasons differ in the five DEC zones. Ours is the Long Island Zone, defined as “that area consisting of Nassau and Suffolk counties and their tidal waters, and that area of Westchester County and its tidal waters southeast of Interstate Route 95.”
In addition to state rules about seasons, hours, bag limits, and other details, there are also local ordinances that regulate hunting. Nonetheless, the always-valuable “Police Blotter” in the February 2 issue of The Rye Record included several items about duck hunting problems, including these two:
“1/28: A canard. Complainant heard multiple gunshots coming from Edith Read Sanctuary, where duck hunting is not allowed, 7:20 a.m. Unable to locate source.
1/22: Brevoort Lane resident wished to ensure duck hunters know they have to be shooting away from, not parallel to property…advised to call DEC.”
It is obvious that hunting in this area does not reduce the waterfowl population significantly, although the birds are smart enough to stay away when shotguns are being fired. Populations typically increase or wane based on reproductive success, and studies have shown that managed duck and goose hunting has little effect on bird numbers from year to year.
Nonetheless, state and local officials should continue to enforce the rules aggressively for the benefit of everyone. Also, we should all be sure our children and grandchildren are familiar with “Make Way for Ducklings” and “The Snow Goose.”