This was a week of counting wintering water-birds. The other day I looked out onto New York Harbor and saw a large raft of diving ducks. I counted at least 1,000, but certainly there were many that I failed to spot.
Although there were a few gulls, Golden-eyes, and Buffleheads in the mix, a large number of birds floating on top of the water were Scaup, a mid-sized diving duck. Nearly all were most likely Greater Scaup, as opposed to Lesser Scaup. The two species appear very similar, but Greater males have longer bluebills and glossy dark green heads, Lessers have glossy purplish heads. Greater Scaups also seem to be more of a maritime species that favor coasts and larger bodies of salty water while the Lessers appear more abundant on inland or smaller bodies of water.
Upon closer look, many of the scaup seemed to be resting or sleeping on the water. The birds had their head turned around backwards and nestled into their feathers, to keep their unfeathered blue-bill warm on this cold winter’s day.
No doubt the scaup were exhausted. Many of the them might have recently flown to New York Harbor from northern waters just before winter storms are planned to pound the northeast over the next week. Greater Scaup spend the summer raising a family along lakes and bogs out on the tundra or in the northern limits of the boreal forest in far northern Canada. When the first frost arrives, the ducks quickly head south to salt bays and large open estuaries, including New York Harbor, to rest and feed. They will gather in huge flocks or “rafts” to avoid predators and stay warm, communal heat to survive severely cold temperatures.
For the past week or so, this large raft of scaup seemed comfortable feeding and resting near the shores of Port Monmouth and Atlantic Highlands, small bayside communities located downstream from New York City and situated beside Sandy Hook Bay. The sheer number of scaup in this flock was incredible. You could see the long raft of hundreds of black and white feathered birds down the length of the bay.
The scaup seemed to be in one unbroken line, parallel to the coast. They were moving slowly easterly with tide and currents, but when they got too far out of sight the birds at one end would take wing to arrive at the other end. Eventually the flock was right back where it started. The birds were organized and methodical, they knew what they were doing to survive a winter in New York Harbor.
Ducks not resting were diving for a tasty seafood meal, either clams, scallops, snails, or mussels. According to F.H. Kortright from the American Wildlife Institute, Greater Scaup are powerful swimmers and diving ducks that can swim underwater for around 30 seconds to forage. Food items are then brought to the surface to be eaten. Scaup not sleeping or foraging had eyes wide open to watch for predators and to warn the flock of trouble.
For now, large flocks of Greater Scaup seemed safe and sound in Sandy Hook Bay, in view of the Verrazano Bridge. Every winter the scaup materialize in a different place to call their own. Some years they can be observed in the Navesink River, or near Great Kills Park on Staten Island or close to the Sandy Hook peninsula. If the bay starts to ice over, Greater Scaup will fly nearby to the open ocean to form a large raft of floating ducks. They will go wherever they can find abundant food and feel safe.
Who knows how long the scaup will stay here. It’s best to get out and enjoy the amazing view of thousands of diving ducks in Sandy Hook Bay while it lasts. A truly amazing phenomenon within the dirty, bustling and busy waters located downstream from New York City!
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com