Provincetown Visit – owl and oldsquaw

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Oops I said Oldsquaw! Sorry, the appropriate name is Long-tailed Duck (LTDU). They were named Oldsquaw by early observers who heard groups of the birds as they sat, swam, fed, or loafed in large flocks and thought they sounded like a gathering of female indigenous people.

(I know I said I had some more Falklands pages nearly ready but thought I should interject this page. All the Falkland fans will be satisifed in the rather immediate future.)

The Long-tails are a salt water duck in our part of the world. Here on Cape Cod we see them in the winter; they often congregate in both roosting/sleeping areas and then separately in feeding areas. These areas not being in the same location allows you to see flocks of Long-tails flying out in the morning and back in the evening. On some occasions and during some winters these groups can numbers thousands of birds at a time. They are always in groups and are quite noisy.  They nest in northern regions especially around shallow ponds in the tundra.

They are rather round bellied birds but fly rapidly and with great dexterity. I think they are a bit pointy looking in flight but that isn’t universally seen. The Long-tails are diving birds and roll frontward into the water; paddle with their feet and can stay underwater longer than any other duck. They will dive and stay under for well over a minute and dive to a depth of 200 feet or more. They eat shellfish and crustaceans that they glean from the rocks on the bottom or from pilings. They are always making new feathers. The molt schedule for a Longtail is quite complex, resulting in three (some references say four) different plumages between April and October.

We popped up to Provincetown yesterday to check the area around Macmillan Wharf for alcids and winter ducks. Alcids are those northern hemisphere birds that live and breed mostly in the frigid high arctic and look a bit like small penguins. There have been murres, guillemots, and a dovekie around the wharf during the past week and there is always the chance for a King Eider (KIEI) and perhaps two species of loon. We ran into a cooperative Short-eared Owl (SEOW) that flew around us for a while.

The Long-tailed Duck (LTDU) is quite elegant as the third image shows. But many of the sea birds (ducks, loons, grebes, and mergansers) have to dive into deep water to locate crabs, or fish, or arthropods, or mollusks. Most ducks paddle with their feet when underwater and do not use their wings to “fly” while diving. The Long-tailed Ducks do extend the alula, feathers at the front corner of the wing, which act as does the aileron on a plane; helping with balance and speed, and probably with aspect as well. In a very real sense they are flying when under water.
The name of the duck is derived from the terminal appendages of the male in breeding plumage. It really does have a long tail. There were no females close enough to photograph on this day so I just have these male birds for you. The females have rather usual tail feathers.
As I said they are quite elegant even in non-breeding plumage like this. The chestnut patch on the neck is added as the males approach breeding season. The tail feathers and the elegant gray scapular feathers are reminiscent of the “aigrettes” of breeding-plumaged herons and egrets.
The alcids include puffins, guillemots, murres, razorbills, murrelets, and auklets. The alcids, these holarctic arctic cliff nesters (mostly) were represented this weekend by a guillemot or two and these two (of four near the wharf) Thick-billed Murres (TBMU). They are smallish divers of really cold water but most winters we see a few of them around Cape Cod. There is also a Common Murre which is (most years) less common here in the northeast. They dive deeply for their food and have been known to defend to depths below 650 feet. A trip like that can take three minutes our more. There was a TBMU shot a couple years ago that was banded and known to be almost 29 years old.
The Black Guillemot (BLGU) is seen in the winter in our waters as a mostly white bird with just enough black so the bright white wing patches can always be discerned. Again there is more than one population and each population has its own characteristics. In the harbor right now are a couple of the “Atlantic” Black Guillemots and one “Arctic” Black Guillemot; a much whiter bird. The west coast has the Pigeon Guillemot which is also a blackish bird much like our “Atlantic” form. The Pigeon Guillemot (PIGU) nest along the coast from central California up and around all of coastal Alaska. Our Atlantic form is found along rocky shores from Maine up through the Canadian Maritimes. The Arctic form is found even further north; into the Elizabeth Islands, including Baffin, Ellesmere, and much of Greenland. Guillemots can dive for over two minutes and will carry fish crosswise in their bills. Banded wild birds have been known to live more than 25 years.
Owls seem so interested as they peer at you with both eyes forward and unblinking. They see things from their heads as we do – eyes front. Perhaps that is why we like them; or maybe it is the early ability to fly, see, hunt, and succeed in the dark of night. Perhaps the hooting and gasping calls they make create some sort of spooky relationship with them. Anyway, for whatever reason, we like owls and are enthralled by their behavior.
At the very tip of Cape Cod’s bended, sandy arm there is a fist-like curl – the Race Point dunes at Provincetown. There is a very small landing field out here, a National Seashore Visitor Center, and lots of sand. Sand with modest vegetation ranging from Beech Forest to Beach Grass covered dunes and miles of beaches which are just plain sand.
In Massachusetts we see lots of Eastern Screech (EASO) and Great-horned Owls (GHOW) . There are quite a few Northern Saw-whet Owls (NSWO) here in migration and in a few wintering pockets. Snowy Owl (SNOW) numbers vary greatly winter to winter. There are some Barred (BADO) and Long-Eared Owls (LEOW) scattered about as well. Most of these are uncommon and very difficult to see. Many species can be heard off and on throughout the year.
One of the favorites is another rather uncommon owl called Short-eared. Though suited to most open areas, we have seen Short-eared decline rapidly in Massachusetts. This year has been rather nice as there are birds on the North Shore, South Shore, and on the Cape. It may not signal a great population increase but it is certainly nice to see them in some of their old haunts. They are often active in the day time. The photo was taken about 3:45 PM on a rather gray and short winters day.

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