Waterfowl

black duckNortheast coastal Maine boasts some of America’s most exceptional waterfowl habitat.  At least 28 species, nearly all those regularly seen on the Atlantic flyway, are at least occasional visitors.  Of these, some 17 species depend on our local habitats for at least one essential component of their annual life cycle.  However, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s North American Waterfowl Management Plan “The loss and degradation of habitat is the major waterfowl management problem in North America....Eastern Maine is a habitat area of major concern.”

Nesting – Our local freshwater wetlands and salt marshes provide very important nesting habitat for several species.  One of the most important is the Black Duck, an iconic species to New England waterfowlers and bird lovers.  Black Ducks are ground nesters, preferring secluded woods and brushy margins near beaver flowages, marshes and streams to raise their broods.  Mallards are also ground nesters that rear broods locally.

Wood ducks are increasingly common in our part of Maine, nesting in cavities, preferring dead trees in or along the edges of fresh water wetlands or using man-made nesting boxes.  Hooded Mergansers and, rarely, Common Goldeneyes, are also cavity nesters that raise broods locally.

ducks in flight female hoodie

Eider ducks, our one locally nesting sea duck species, build simple nests just above the tide line on the shores of many islands at the mouths of the bays.  The hens pluck down from their breasts to make insulating coverlets to protect their eggs whenever they leave the nest.

canada gooseCanada geese, once rare in eastern Maine, are now well established.  Each spring more pairs can be seen with fleets of goslings paddling behind.

Waterfowl tend to be widely disbursed over the landscape in spring and summer and are usually secretive while they are raising their young.  By early fall, however, the young birds can fly and flocks start to form, feeding and resting in the beaver flowages and coastal bays and marshes.

Migration – Many new birds arrive during the fall migration, a protracted circus parade of waterfowl at sea and along the coastline.  Most stop here relatively briefly to feed and fatten for their long flights to southern wintering grounds.  Blue-winged Teal are the first harbingers of autumn, already heading south by Labor Day.  Many thousands of Green-winged Teal follow in October feeding in our salt marshes and tidal flats and treating birders to breathtaking displays of high speed, close formation flying.

bw teal flying teal

At the same time, seaward of the outer islands, flight after flight of Common Eiders, Surf Scoters and, more rarely, Black Scoters and White-wing Scoters hug the wave crests as they fight their way southward against the prevailing breezes.  Many stop to feed and rest in the shallow bays of our local estuaries.

During October and November resident Black Ducks that have regrouped in large flocks are joined by their bretheren arriving from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  When the inland flowages begin to freeze they gather along the shores of the bays and feed on invertebrates and the seeds of the salt marsh grasses.

long tailed duckWinter habitat – Mid-November brings the more hardy late migrants, jaunty Buffleheads, Goldeneyes and Long-tailed Ducks.  Many of these birds will spend the winter diving for mollusks in our protected estuaries.

While wintering habitat on the Downeast coast is important for many species of waterfowl, it is most important for the Black Duck.  The American Black Duck has been identified as a species of statewide, national and international concern.  The North American population of Black Ducks has plummeted nearly 50% since the 1960's.  Only recently has the population appeared to stabilize.  Habitat loss and degradation along the Atlantic flyway is a major cause of this population decline.  Black Ducks are particularly vulnerable because they are exceptionally wary, intolerant of human disturbance and have exacting habitat requirements in winter when their energetic needs are most demanding.

Black Ducks live almost exclusively in eastern North America and Maine's Downeast coast now represents the heart of their year round range. While lack of adequate spring nesting habitat is the limiting factor for many duck species, the Black Duck is different, finding ample nesting sites in Maine and Maritime Canada’s wetlands.  Research shows that it is the progressive loss of high quality winter feeding and resting marshes and mudflats from the mid-Atlantic states through southern New England that has had such a serious impact on the Black Duck population. 

black ducks on mud flats

Biologists believe that an adaptive shift is occurring in the Black Duck gene pool reducing the migratory instinct and favoring over-wintering in Maine.  Flocks of several hundred Black Ducks are now commonly sighted during the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts.  Maine’s upper estuaries offer some of the most important winter Black Duck habitat on the Atlantic Flyway, extensive food-rich intertidal mudflats and tidally exposed rockweed beds that rarely freeze over and suffer very little human disturbance.  To the extent that the Black Duck species, already badly depleted, is now so dependent for winter nourishment on our estuarine habitats we have a particular responsibility to do our best to keep these flats and marshes pristine.

At Pleasant River Wildlife Foundation, we are committed to identifying, protecting and stewarding high value habitats for all waterfowl.  Our successes directly support the survival of migrating waterfowl seen throughout the Atlantic Flyway and can positively influence the reproductive success of locally nesting species.  We focus particular attention towards protecting habitat for Black Ducks – our wary, tenacious and hardy year-round residents.

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PO Box 154 • Addison • Maine • 04606 birdinfo@pleasant-river.org