New York Harbor can be a very harsh place during the winter. For starters, it’s cold, bone cold. Wind chills cut exposed skin barren and bleeding. Water temperatures are frequently near freezing with patches of floating ice adding ice cubes to an already chilled cocktail. Winds blow strong across the bay, bitter and biting winds gusting 20 to 30 knots from the north. Rough seas and choppy waters often rule the day. Forcing water to run fast and furious. It’s not a very friendly or favorable place to be outside for long periods, let alone all winter.
Yet, various waterfowl invade the bay every winter. Hardy diving ducks migrate to New York Harbor, including Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, Jamaica Bay, and the Navesink River, from summer nesting sites up north, mostly across northern Canada and over the coast of Greenland. They come here to feed, preen, and de-stress after a busy breeding season.
Several species of ducks call the chilly waters of New York Harbor home during the winter. Many have fanciful and whimsical names: buffleheads, scoters, scaup, eiders, mergansers, and goldeneyes. These are ducks that are robust, tough, and can only be seen during the winter. Once the warm embrace of spring arrives, these waterfowl quickly fly off to migrate northward and begin another busy breeding season.
Over the weekend in Sandy Hook Bay I was lucky enough to see one of my favorite birds of winter in New York Harbor. Long-tailed ducks were foraging for food.
It was a good day to be out. Winds were breezy but not bitter, and air temperatures were way above normal for February, highs were in the balmy 60s. A good time if you’re a bird looking for food to fatten up before a strenuous spring winged migration.
Long-tail ducks were taking full advantage of the pleasant weather. More than 200 had congregated near the tip of the hook, across from historic Fort Hancock, to forage for mussels, and also small clams and crustaceans (including isopods and amphipods, which are tiny critters that look like pill bugs).
The waters are rich at this site. Just about every winter large flats of long-tailed ducks are abundant. They might have birdbrains, but the birds are no dummies. Long-tails fly here for a cheap and easy seafood meal. Upwelling of nutrient-rich ocean waters rush in near the mouth of the bay to generate impressive primary productivity.
Yet, the food does not come free. Long-tails must dive to find a meal. Not an easy task with local waters often turbid and polluted. These birds, though, are excellent divers. They can dive up to 200 feet and can stay submerged for nearly 2 minutes. Helpful skills to have around New York Harbor where local waters are over 50 feet in depth.
Although long-tailed ducks are similar in size to mallard ducks, they look nothing like mallard ducks. In my opinion, long-tails are even more beautiful. Males have largely white bodies, heads, and necks with dark wings, backs, and breast. Their most noticeable feature is their long tails, which gives this species its common name. Females are largely dusky and dim in color with a white face patch.
If you can’t see these birds, then listen closely. You can often hear them. Long-tails have an amusing musical call. Although every birder has tried to portray this unique song, I think the Cornell Lab of Ornithology does it best. The bird’s voice sounds like a short yodel, “ow-owooolee." Try to listen for this distinctive winter sound the next time you take a beach walk.
Like all good things, long-tailed ducks will soon be gone. All at once they will disappear. Flying fast to start another breeding season and raise a family.
Starting in May the birds will nest in the treeless plain of the tundra, making a home of moss and grass near shallow pools of water. This will be the place for the next six or seven months where they will raise six or eight young. Life is never easy in this cold and windy environment. Predation is always near for little ducklings, from hungry foxes and bigger birds. Only 10% of little long-tailed ducks will survive to be 30 days old or more. Mercury, oil, and other toxins in the water are also limiting factors on the population.
Yet, if the little birds can find a way to endure, they can expect to live on average around 15 years. They will be part of a great social network of lively long-tailed ducks that fly every winter to the cold, harsh waters of New York Harbor to dine on seafood and rest together in great flocks while growing new feathers. Their sight and sounds will be part of a great natural show in the busy and bustling waters of New York Harbor.