Salt Water Surprise

Please consider the images to be copyrighted and ask permission to use or reproduce any of them. Thank you. David Clapp

As I have mentioned previously Cape Cod is a long sandy arm that sticks into the North Atlantic and then bends northward. The town at the elbow, the southeast corner that is, is called Chatham. Prior to the 1900s it was a hardscrabble fishing town populated by rugged individuals who had essentially no roads to Boston. The glacials left Chatham little but sand; there are sand dunes, sandy barrier beaches, sand cliffs, and sandy beaches. But there is also a great deal of moving water and exposure to those rather unfriendly North Atlantic storms. Sand is much like a liquid. It flows when the wind blows and it flows in the moving water around Chatham.

This image was taken at a Chatham town landing where the tidal flow tears around a sandy point and between a barrier beach and an island. There are spots where the water steams along and other spots where it eddies and is quite placid.The birds in flight are headed back into the lower harbor where they will catch a tidal-ride on the incoming water back to this starting point. They are transported over their buffet table of mollusks and crabs. These are almost all Common Eider (COEI). The birds with white are adult males and the all dark ones (actually a chestnut brown) are the females. There can be more than 10,000 eider in this rip alone. It is where the rest of the images were taken today.

There have been long sandy extensions running like dreadlocks south from Chatham off and on for thousands of years. During those many years the sandy shoals have also disappeared at times. At the moment the lower corner of Chatham is wasting away very rapidly. I volunteer a bit for the US Fish & Wildlife at their refuge in Chatham called Monomoy. The office sits on a bluff that has lost about 40′ of frontage just this winter. Stairs to the beach go first, then the bluff-top paths and walkways, and the woodlands that (used to) carpet the sandy ground. It has been quite a winter.

This is one of the eddy areas. Here there are lots of female Common Eider and a few young males. The males are black and white in their second year. The adults males are striking; the females are brown, some sort of dark or reddish brown. They often will come out of the water and sit on the beach, usually an exposed sand bar but that isn’t always the case. These guys wanted to come onto the beach where I was standing in the sun in the wind in the freezing cold winter air.

Looking through the floating birds just offshore I saw many female eider, a couple Red-breasted Mergansers, and a single Surf and another single Black Scoter. Interesting but not earth-shaking (sorry New Zealand).

The Red-breasted Mergansers have a wild tuft of feathers that serve as a wind sock. The merganser group is, as you can see, a water bird. But the mergansers (Red-breasted, Common, and Hooded) have a very narrow beak with tooth-like serrations on both upper and lower parts of the bill. This helps with slippery fish, elvers, tadpoles and other squirmy things they chase down, catch, and eat.
Eider have a rather large aquiline beak and feathers that repel water and insulate the bird. Well I guess that is requisite duty of all waterbird feathering.
The females of most ducks are brownish to limit their observability while incubating eggs during nesting. The female do have delicate patterns and vermiculations developed by the interaction of the feather edges and the variations within each feather.

There were only a few hundred eider near shore today and I tried to stay in the car as I looked them over. That was soon impossible as I discovered a really cool duck in among the eider – it was a male Harlequin Duck. Soon after I found another, much less gaudy duck but still not an eider, it was a female Harlequin Duck. The three images below show them at rest. The harlequin comics (or jesters) of old Italian theatre were often depicted with masks and fancy headgear. The Harlequin Duck is named after those affectations.

The male is really quite spectacular. The chest color is a green/turquoise/almost purple color that defies labelling. The bill is small and the white contrasts sharply throughout.
The Harlequin Ducks are not ducks of sandy Cape Cod; they are rugged coastal ducks that dive in the surf as it crashes over rocks. They pluck sea life from this turbulent water. They are not usually seen floating and napping with eider, rather they can be seen hauled out on a rock exposed at mid or low tide. They are not uncommon but are probably declining in overall population. There is an east coast population that runs from the Canadian Maritimes to Greenland and Iceland and into northern Europe. The Alaskan and western Canadian population connects to more Harlequins breeding well into Siberia. They winter on salt water.
The female is rather plain. She does have a couple face marks that allow for a bit of flash; but mostly she is a flat gray-brown. But remember it is the female that chooses the male based on how vibrant his plumage is – she may not be flashy but she is responsible for him being flashy.
She has to sit on eggs adjacent to a far northern river. These birds nest inland and well up into the boreal forests and tundra alongside gravel bottomed rivers rather near the coast. It is much less common inland from the coast – say more than 100 miles or so. Here, near their river breeding habitat, they dive for small creatures that live on the rocks at the bottom of their river home.

One thought on “Salt Water Surprise

  1. Years ago in Glazier national park I came across a beautiful pair of harlequin ducks on one of the rivers there. It was kind of a shock to see them so far away from where I was used to seeing them in Massachusetts. But they were HOME,not on their winter vacation in mass

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