It’s a big ocean. There are lots of ducks on it. Many are aggravatingly distant. Fortunately, some ducks are no more interested in getting tossed around in the surf than you are. They often tuck in close to shore, sheltered in bays. These species tend to nest on freshwater wetlands in subarctic Canada. I surmise that they’re not that thrilled to be on the ocean during a Maine winter, because they sure are in a hurry to get home once the ice melts.
Ocean duck-watching in winter does not have to be a frigid affair. It can often be done from a heated car. Here are two species that are frequently found close to shore. Since they are common, perhaps they are underappreciated. Allow me to present some off-the-wall facts to enhance your awareness.
Buffleheads are cute. The male is dark on top, white below, with a big white patch from the eye to eye across the back of the head. Females are all dark with a white ear spot. They are North America’s smallest diving ducks. Buffleheads feed on invertebrates, crustaceans and mollusks, all of which are in good supply close to shore. They are not deep divers, and they don’t chase fish, so they don’t stay submerged very long. They can usually be seen popping up and down close to shore, seldom staying underwater for more than 15 seconds.
Buffleheads are cavity nesters. This explains an odd quirk: Their breeding range is almost totally dependent on northern flickers. These woodpeckers make a hole too small for other cavity-nesters, such as goldeneyes and mergansers, but just right for buffleheads.
While we usually see buffleheads on saltwater, it’s mostly because our freshwater is frozen. In spring and fall, and definitely on their summer breeding grounds, they are freshwater birds. Likewise, buffleheads are found on freshwater throughout the lower 48 in winter. I’ve seen them swimming with alligators in South Carolina. Mind blown.
Long-tailed ducks are elegant, among the prettiest diving ducks seen during a Maine winter. Like the bufflehead, its principal diet consists of invertebrates, but it will also take small fish and plant matter. It’s capable of diving much deeper than most ducks — up to 200 feet — and prefers to feed near the bottom, so it stays underwater much longer. Long-tailed ducks migrate to saltwater in winter and stay close to the coast, ranging as far south as Chesapeake Bay. However, they do winter on freshwater in the Great Lakes. In summer, long-tailed ducks nest primarily on freshwater wetlands in the subarctic.
Most male birds wear their prettiest feathers in the spring, in hopes of attracting a mate. But our long-tailed ducks are at their prettiest in winter. They molt twice a year, and take on a subdued brown plumage just before leaving us. This follows a pattern seen in many ducks. Courtship starts early. Long-tailed ducks and other waterfowl species start pairing up before they migrate northward, so they tend to show off their mate-attracting finery in the dreariest of weather.
Long-tailed ducks are quite vocal, calling a distinctive “owl-owl-let,” audible at a distance. It’s a sound that I often hear emanating across the water in Southwest Harbor. I often find large flocks in Roque Bluffs, a place where I’ve seen duck hunters targeting them. They are relatively small, as ducks go. I presume it takes a bunch of them to make a meal.
I also presume they taste like an unpalatable combination of liver and mollusks. Hint: whenever I wonder if something is edible, I do a Google search for recipes. For a laugh, see if you can find a good recipe for bobcat. I couldn’t.
Almost anything is edible when wrapped in enough bacon. But whenever I see a recipe that is doing everything possible to soak the original flavor out of something, and substituting soy sauce or fruit marinade, I have serious reservations. I Googled long-tailed duck recipes, and I am not persuaded to eat it. I realize I may have just offended a duck-hunter, who now feels compelled to prove me wrong. No need. Go ahead and eat my share.
Buffleheads are also a game bird, and by some accounts they taste slightly better. But only slightly. I thought about doing more research, but I’m opting to take the easy way out. I’ll leave the recipe challenge to John Holyoke, and look forward to reading his outdoor column on these BDN pages to see if there is an answer. Good luck, John. Bon appetit.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.