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Bay and Sea Ducks: Sub-family Fuliglinæ

Ducks are divided into three subfamilies: Bay and Sea Ducks, River and Pond Ducks, and Mergansers. In all, twelve or thirteen species belonging to the first division may be found along the coast of New England and New York, but only six or seven are common. Two species, the Ruddy Duck and the Lesser Scaup Duck, are as a rule only migrants, and occur nearly as often on inland waters as at sea; the other species are all winter visitants, either along the whole coast or on certain portions of it.

The American Eider, common off the Maine and Massachusetts coasts, is rare off Long Island. The Harlequin is found regularly only on the eastern half of the Maine coast; the King Eider and Barrow's Golden-eye are rare even on the Maine coast and only stragglers farther south. The Buffle-head is by no means abundant, but the Oldsquaw, the Whistler, and the three Scoters are common all along the coast and in places abundant. The Greater Scaup is locally common in winter. The American Eider also breeds sparingly along the eastern half of the Maine coast, and the Whistler breeds on some of the large lakes of Maine.

All the species named above dive for their food, and may by this habit be distinguished from the River and Pond Ducks, but not from the Mergansers, nor from the Grebes or the other Diving Birds et seq.

It is at first difficult for an observer on shore to distinguish the different species feeding some distance off in the water, or flying back and forth to their feeding ground. The Red-breasted Merganser and Black Duck of the following sections must also be taken into consideration in a winter visit to the sea-shore, and the presence of the Loons and Grebes adds to the complication. Much may, however, be learned by careful study with a powerful field-glass, or a small telescope, especially if the observer conceal himself or approach the lookout post unobserved. One gradually becomes familiar with certain marks about the head and on the wings, the size and actions of certain species, and after long practice can distinguish them at long range and with considerable ease. The beginner, however, should be very careful, and identify with great hesitation. A morning in a “blind,” or a cruise in a sailboat with gunner or a more advanced student, will clear up many difficulties. Ducks, like other sea-birds, have a habit of standing up now and then in the water and flapping their wings; at such times they show any white patches there may be in the wings. When about to alight they generally scale for some distance with wings set and body almost perpendicular, and just before they drop into the water a foot dangles down on each side. At this time one can note the color of the feet and legs, which differs with the different species. “Scoters, Old Squaws, and Eiders ordinarily fly low over the water, while the Mergansers, Scaups, Whistlers, and most of the others, are apt to fly high” (Job, “ Among the Water-Fowl,” p. 221.)

NOTE.— The term speculum, which occurs frequently in the descriptions of the plumages of ducks, is applied to a small patch of feathers in the wing, which in many species differs in color from the rest of the wing, and often has a beautiful metallic lustre. Many ducks have also larger or smaller areas of white in the wing which serve as better field-marks than the speculum, which is only useful in case the duck is seen at close range.

RUDDY DUCK. Erismatura jamaicensis
15.00 in.

Ad. ♂ in breeding plumage.— Crown and nape black; sides of head and chin white; upper parts, throat, and fore neck bright reddish-brown; upper part of breast tinged with reddish-brown; rest of under parts silvery white; tail brownish-black, the séparate feathers stiff and pointed; no white on wing. Ad. ♀ and as Im.— Top of head dark brown, white stripe from below the eye to back of neck; back grayish-brown; under parts dull whitish. Bill short and broad.

Nest, of reeds, built up out of the water. Eggs, dull white.

The Ruddy Duck occurs a migrant both on the coast and on inland waters in March and April, and in October and November. It breeds rarely in northeastern Maine, and has also been found breeding in Rhode Island and on Cape Cod. It was formerly a common migrant, but is now rapidly decreasing in numbers. It is as quick at diving as a grebe, and has the latter's power of sinking till only the bill is exposed. It may be recognized by its small size, squat appearance, and by the white or whitish sides of the head. The tail is often conspicuously cocked up, the short stiff feathers showing separately. “When rising from the water, it runs on the surface for some distance and generally against the wind ... when on the wing, it flies low along the surface of the water, with a rapid beat of its broad wings, making a short plump figure, quite uncommon for a duck” (Langille).

SURF SCOTER. Oidemia perspicillata
20.00 in.

Ad. ♂.— Patch on forehead and one on hind neck white; rest of plumage black; bill showing much red, orange, and yellow; feet red or reddish-orange. Ad. ♀.— Top of head black; spot behind eye and one in front of eye whitish; rest of plumage sooty-brown, paler below. Im.— Similar to ♀.

The three Scoters, or Coot, as the gunners call them (see, however, American Coot), are migrants and winter visitants along the coast of New York and New England. In winter the greatest numbers are found south of Cape Cod, where the birds gather in enormous beds in the shoal waters about Nantucket and south of Long Island. The first migrants appear in September, and the last go north in May, but the birds are most abundant during October and April. All three species occur as more or less regular migrants on large inland ponds, — as at Dublin, N. H., — and in the valleys of the Connecticut and the Hudson, especially in the autumn. In summer a few barren birds linger along the coast, particularly in Maine.

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Scoters feed over the shallows, even when the surf is breaking, diving till they reach the beds of shellfish, on which they feed. Early in the morning, or when changes in the wind or tide make them restless, they fly low over the water in large or small flocks; at other times they gather over the feeding-grounds, and dive and reappear steadily.

When on the wing, the following species, the Whitewinged Scoter, is readily distinguished from the other two, which show no white in the wing. Even when a flock is feeding, individuals frequently stand for a moment and shake themselves, their outspread wings at such a time often settling their identity. To distinguish the Surf Scoter from the American Scoter, it is necessary to make out the patch of white on the hind neck. With a good glass this can be seen, both when the ducks are flying and when they are feeding. The female and young Surf Scoters are brown, and have only indistinct white patches on the neck, and are difficult to tell at a distance from the female or young American Scoters, which are also brown. The latter, however, are rarer than the former. The White-winged Scoter shows the white wing-patch in all plumages.

WHITE-WINGED SCOTER. Oidemia deglandi
22.00 in.

Ad. ♂.— Spot below eye, and short, broad patch on wing white; rest of plumage black; bill with much red and orange; legs and feet scarlet. Ad. ♀.— Spot behind the eye and patch on wing white; rest of upper parts sooty-brown; under parts grayish-brown; bill orange-black; legs and feet brownish-red.

The White-winged Scoter is, perhaps, the most abundant sea duck off the coast of southern New England and Long Island. Its habits and field-marks have been described under the preceding species. Many of our sea ducks show a white wing-patch (see American Golden-Eye; Whistler (Common Goldeneye)), and Red-Breasted Merganser; Sheldrake), but no others have black breasts as well.

AMERICAN [BLACK] SCOTER. Oidemia americana Melanitta americana
19.00 in.

Ad. ♂.— Entire plumage black; bill black, bright orange at the base, which is much swollen; legs and feet brownish-black. Ad. ♀.— Top of head dark brown; throat and fore neck grayish; rest of plumage sooty-brown, lighter below; bill black; legs and feet brown.

The American Scoter is the least common of the three Scoters; it is also the smallest. In its habits it resembles its relatives; all three are often associated on the same feeding-grounds, but generally keep in distinct flocks. The adult male American Scoter may be distinguished from any other duck by its uniform black plumage, and its habit of diving. The Black Duck, which in winter may be found with the Scoters, does not dive; moreover, the Black Duck may generally be distinguished by the whitish under surface of its wings. An adult male American Scoter has an orange spot at the base of its black bill. (See under Surf Scoter)

NOTE. - The King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) is a rare winter visitant to the coast of New England, occasionally common off the coast of Maine. The adult male may be distinguished from the following species by the top of the head, which is a delicate lavender instead of black, and by the cheeks, which are sea-green instead of white.

AMERICAN [COMMON] EIDER. Somateria dresseri [mollissima]
23.00 in.

Ad. ♂.— Top of head black, divided by a white stripe; rest of head white, tinged on the sides and back with green; neck, upper breast, and most of back white; middle of lower back, wings, tail, and belly black; bill, legs, and feet olive-green. Ad. ♀ and Im.— Top of head blackish; rest of plumage dark buffy-brown, lightest on throat and neck, barred everywhere with black.

Nest, on the ground, often under a bush. Eggs, olive-green.

The American Eider is a common winter visitant off the coast of New England, arriving in October, and returning in April. It is rare south of Massachusetts. It is a rare summer resident on some of the rocky islands of the Maine coast, from Isle au Haut eastward. Great flocks of eiders collect in the shoal water off Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard, spending the night at sea, and flying in each morning to some ledge of rocks, where they find the mussels on which they feed. These they obtain by diving through the breakers. The Eider is rarely seen in the inner bays and harbors; in fact it is known among the fishermen as the “Sea Duck."

The adult male is a very striking bird, the black crown and belly contrasting with the white breast and back. The female may be distinguished from other brown ducks by her size and the presence in the flock of black and white males. In April as the flocks fly north, the males and females alternate irregularly and fly in long lines low over the water. (See Mackay, “ Auk," vol. vii. pp. 315-319.)

HARLEQUIN DUCK. Histrionicus histrionicus
17.00 in.

Ad. ♂.— General color leaden blue, changing into blue-black on lower back, and bluish-gray on belly; triangular crescent-shaped spot in front of the eye, a round spot near the ears, a narrow collar around lower part of neck, a broad bar across breast, and other markings on wing and breast white; under side of neck and bar on side of breast, centre of forehead, crown, and hind neck black; sides bright reddish-brown; bill and feet slate. Ad. ♀.— Head and neck grayish-brown; a white spot back of the ear; sides of head tinged with white; sides grayish-brown; bill and feet slate.

The Harlequin Duck is a rare but regular winter visitant on the eastern half of the coast of Maine, frequenting rocky ledges and islets well out at sea. It may be distinguished from other ducks by “the combination of small size, dark color, and buoyancy, in air and water” (Norton, “ Auk,” vol. xiii. pp. 229–234). The female may be distinguished from the female Old-squaw by the color of the belly, which is grayish dusky instead of pure white.

OLD-SQUAW [LONG-TAILED DUCK]. Harelda hyemalis Clangula hyemalis
♂ 21.00 in. ♀ 16.00 in.

Ad. ♂ in winter.— Patch on side of neck blackish-brown (occasionally nearly absent); region in front of eye light gray; rest of head, neck, upper breast, and back white; back, wings, and tail brown, two white patches extending down the back; breast and upper belly brown; lower belly white; two middle tail-feathers black, very long and narrow; outer tail-feathers white: base of bill black, tip yellow, band of pink between; legs and feet pale slate. Ad. ♂ in late spring.— Patch in front of eye gray; small patch back of eye white; rest of head, neck, back, breast, and upper belly sooty black, feathers of the back margined with reddish-brown; lower belly white; tail-feathers and feet as in winter. Ad. ♀ in winter.— Head, neck, and lower parts mostly white; top of head and sides of neck dusky; upper parts duskybrown. Ad. ♀ in spring.— Similar to ♀ in winter, but sides of head and neck blackish; feathers of the back margined with brown. Im. in winter.— Either similar to ad.♀ in winter, or with head and neck chiefly grayish; sides of head whitish; breast streaked with dusky.

The Old-squaw is a very common winter visitant on the coast of New York and New England from October to May. It does not come into the inner harbors as freely as the Whistler and Buffle-head, but feeds in small or large flocks in the surf close to the outer beaches, or in vast 6 rafts over shoals at sea. It rides easily over the great rollers, or dives into and through them. Little companies are constantly moving here and there, flying, after they get under way, with ease and great rapidity. The Old-squaw is noted for its garrulousness, particularly in spring; the chattering of a flock is musical, resembling the syllables honk, honk-a-link, honk-a-link (Sanford). In mild days in spring and fall Old-squaws " tower," — that is, fly to a great height, and then descend with rushing wings.

The long tail-feathers of the male are very conspicuous, drooping below him as he lights in the water, or cocked up at an angle as he swims. His white head with the black spot behind the eye sufficiently characterizes the male, even when the long tail-feathers do not show. The females and young have much darker heads, and lack the long tailfeathers of the adult male, but are readily identified by the large amount of whitish about the sides of the head, and generally by the presence in the flock of long-tailed males. (See Mackay, “ Auk," vol. ix. pp. 330-337.)

BUFFLE-HEAD. Charitonetta albeola
14.75 in.

Ad. ♂.— A snow-white patch from back of eye over top of head; rest of head and neck apparently black, crested and puffed out at the side (at close range showing purple, violet, and green reflections); broad ring around neck and under parts pure white; back black; wings black, with large white patches; bill dark gray; legs and feet flesh-color. Ad. ♀.— Head, neck, and upper parts sooty-brown; large spot back of eye whitish; wings brown, showing white when spread; under parts (except throat and neck) white; bill, legs, and feet dusky.

Nest, generally in a hole in a tree, usually near the water. Eggs, grayish-white, tinged with green.

The Buffle-head is a rather common migrant in October, March, and April along the coast of New York and New England, occurring also on large inland streams and ponds. It is a rather uncommon winter visitant from southern Maine southward, and is reported as breeding sparingly in northeastern Maine (Knight). It is the smallest of the sea ducks, and among the river ducks only the Green-winged Teal is smaller. It dives with the quickness of a grebe. Its habits along the sea-coast are similar to those of the Whistler, and it is often associated with that species, preferring the mouths of rivers, and the harbors and coves along the shore to the shoals well out at sea.



A male may be known by the large patch of white in the head, extending from behind the eye to the top of the head. The head-feathers are long, and give the head a“ bushy” look. The female and young males have a white patch extending from the eye to the back of the head. (See the following species, and the Hooded Merganser)

NOTE.— Barrow's Golden-eye, Clangula islandica, a species which resembles the following closely in appearance and habit, is a rare winter visitant on the Maine coast. The chief differences are in the purplish-blue of the head, and the shape of the white spot before the eye, which in this species is twice as large and somewhat crescent shaped. It would not ordinarily be safe to attempt to distinguish the two species, unless the birds were in the hand.

AMERICAN [COMMON] GOLDEN-EYE; WHISTLER. Clangula clangula americana
20.00 in.

Ad. ♂.— Head black (greenish in good light), slightly crested; spot below and in front of eye white; middle of back and tail black; entire under parts (except throat), broad ring around neck, and sides of upper back white; wing black, much of it covered with long white feathers when closed, and showing a broad patch of white when spread; bill black; feet orange. Ad. ♂.— Head dull reddish-brown, no whitespot; back and band across breast dark grayish-brown; ring around neck and rest of under parts white; wing showing considerable white both when closed and when open; bill yellowish-brown; feet and legs yellowish.

Nest, in a hole in a tree, near the water. Eggs, bright peagreen, or olivaceous green.

The Whistler is a common winter visitant to the coast of New York and New England, arriving in October, and leaving in April. It breeds in northern Maine, notably at Lake Umbagog (see Brewster, “ Auk," vol. xvii. pp. 207216). The Whistler in winter is an inshore duck, coming into the small bays and harbors, and up the mouths of rivers, where it dives for shellfish and water plants. Sometimes when the shoals are frozen over, any small inland pond-hole will afford it food. Though generally wary, it has quickly taken advantage of the immunity offered it on the Boston Back Bay, and may be seen any day in winter on each side of the Harvard Bridge.

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The Whistler's flight is rapid and characteristic, and is accompanied by a sharp, whistling sound. When in the air, the white under parts and the white patches in the wing are conspicuous. From the Red-breasted Mergansers, which also show white below and on the wing, the short thick head and short neck distinguish it. The black head and the small white spot before the eye distinguish the male. The female has a dull reddish-brown head and is often mistaken by beginners for the very rare Red-head, or confused with the female Scaup Ducks. She may be separated from the latter by the lack of any white about the base of the bill.

[BARROW'S GOLDEN-EYE]. Bucephala Islandica
17.00 - 19.00 in.

Not in the original book as they are rare in NY and New England. While many are located on the western part of the US and Canada, there are some populations on the northeast from Long Island northward. Occassionally you can see a Barrow's mixed up in a flock of Common Goldeneye, that are much more numerous in the northeast.

16.50 in.

Ad.— Similar to the following species but smaller, and head and neck of male showing at close range purplish instead of greenish reflections.

The Lesser Scaup Duck is a common migrant off Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley, occurring in September and October, and in February and March; in New England it is less common, and appears generally in the autumn, often in company with the following species. It occurs both on the coast and in inland ponds. It is doubtful whether it occurs in winter, though the Greater Scaup is common at that season. The two species resemble each other very closely, but may be distinguished in good light and at close range by the color of the head, which is purplish in the Lesser, greenish in the Greater. (See following species.)

♂ 18.50 in. ♀ 17.50 in.

Ad. ♂.—Head, neck, upper back, and breast black, the head and neck showing greenish reflections in strong light; middle of back white, marked with narrow wavy black lines; speculum white; a white stripe along wing when spread, lower belly and sides pure white; under tail-coverts black; bill blue-gray; legs and feet lead-color. Ad. ♀.— Black of ♂ replaced by brown; region around base of bill white; wings brown; speculum and stripe in extended wing white; under parts not so pure white; bill and feet as in ♂.

The Scaup or Blue-bill is a common migrant along the coast of New York and New England in March and April, and in October and November; it is usually an abundant winter visitant in Long Island Sound, and occurs in winter at least as far north as Massachusetts Bay. Like the other sea ducks it occurs on large inland rivers and on freshwater ponds near the sea.

Blue-bills often occur in very large flocks, and when alarmed they swim toward a common centre, forming a compact bunch, which then swims away from the disturbing factor. They fly in a characteristic waving line, showing a stripe of white along the outstretched wing. The male may be known by his black head, neck, and breast, and by the white back, crossed by wavy black lines. The white face of the female is very conspicuous, and affords an excellent field-mark.

REDHEAD. Aythya americana
19.00 in.

Ad. ♂.— Head and neck rich reddish-brown; breast and upper back black; back gray, with very narrow wavy black lines speculum gray; belly white; feathers under tail black; bill, broad and flat, rising at base abruptly toward forehead, slate, crossed by a black bar at tip; legs and feet gray. Ad. ♀.— Top of head and neck pale brown; back brownish-gray; chin white; throat, neck, breast, and sides brown, middle of belly white; lower belly brown; bill and feet slate.

The Redhead is a regular, though rare, migrant in New England; on the Long Island coast it is regular, though it varies in numbers; in the lower Hudson Valley it is a common migrant. It occurs in April and October, and occasionally winters off Long Island. It visits both the inland ponds and the coast. An adult male can be confused only with the much rarer Canvas-back, from which the broad flat bill should distinguish it. Care must be taken not to take the female Whistler for the Red-head; the former has a dull reddish-brown head, and shows a considerable patch of white on the wing.

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