The WarblerSample Article Posted 2/20/06

Waterfowl Count—a Winter Pilgrimage
by Kate Dunham

A total of 22 waterfowl species identified over 23 years of mid-winter counts may not sound like much to birders who have yet to join our annual January pilgrimage along the Hudson River. To those who have braved the perils of the often-chilly count, however, those 22 species are to celebrate.

Some of us are old enough to recall the first count, January 15, 1984, when just two species were tallied — American black ducks (115) and mallards (335) — by just two members, Barbara and Hugo Gardina. Their ducks were spotted on North Creek and a pond near their farm in Ghent. Juanita and Jack Cook found the Hudson River empty at Castleton that year, while Elisabeth Grace, Philip Ingalls, Nancy Kern and I bombed out at river checkpoints from Stockport Landing to Clermont Historic Site.

Hudson River at Nutten Hook
Photo by Willard Ulmer
(click image to enlarge)

Conditions were better the following year, when we finished the day with seven species, adding Canada goose, greater scaup, common goldeneye, bufflehead and common merganser to the list. More birders' names were added too — Grace and Earl Bergendahl, Rena Dodd, Susan and Neil Roberts.

Our "big year" — 1995 — produced 12 species, adding green-winged teal and redhead to the composite list.

As for individual numbers, the Canada goose has been far and away the most common winter visitor, even though the species was absent from both the 1984 and 1994 counts. Give or take a few, we've counted 38,610 Canadas over the remaining 21 years! High count was 8,519 in 1992. For birders who witnessed the electrifying chase along the Hudson off Roe Jan Creek, however, just one nameless goose epitomizes our observations of the species.

That is the hapless Canada who somehow got singled out by an immature bald eagle and was pursued up the river and down the river. The poor goose, flying for its life, was pumping its wings at least three times faster and harder than normal. At least that's how it seemed to those of us standing thunderstruck on the river's snowy bank, our hearts in our mouths. For we could see the young eagle, flying with apparent ease, steadily gaining on the big goose.

Finally the victim fell into the water, exhausted. The eagle plummeted down on it, but, to our surprise, made only a superficial hit. A few feathers flew into the air and the goose hunkered down. Then the immature eagle flew off to perch near an adult on the west bank and paid no further attention to the goose. It, in turn, laid low and eventually drifted on the tide downriver with several hundred of its kind.

For me, the really memorable rafts of waterfowl have been those of the canvasbacks. We've come upon this handsome species on 12 of our 23 counts. Our banner year was 1998 when Elisabeth and I found more than 3,000 individuals bobbing along on the icy water between Germantown and Cheviot. In 1992, Nancy, Carol Whitby and Owen Whitby joined in counting a raft of 2,000 off Cheviot Landing.

Some species have been identified only once in all the years we've counted: common loon (1 in 1998); great cormorant (1 in 2002); gadwall (1 in 1991); long-tailed duck (1 in 1997); ruddy duck (1 in 2006).

No species is recorded for every one of the count's 23 years, American black duck and mallard lead the pack, with each reported 22 times. Next come Canada goose and mute swan, listed 20 times each. Common mergansers and common goldeneyes are recorded 18 and 16 times respectively. After that come canvasback (12 counts); snow goose (eight counts); northern pintail, greater scaup and bufflehead (four counts each); hooded merganser (three counts); redhead, ring-necked duck and red-breasted merganser (2 counts each).

Some years weather has been the predominant feature. Nancy remembers the year the thermometer read 22 degrees below zero when we started out. Debbie Shaw was along the year we scraped ice off the inner surface of the windshield of Nancy's car. Carol Whitby has photos of picnics in the snow at Clermont Historic Site. One year — I can't recall when — about eight of us collapsed in a snow bank alongside the railroad track as a train roared past; the snow whirled and blew and when we stood up we all looked like Abominable Snow people.

For those who shudder at the thought of cold weather birding, consider that it takes place in the same temperature range as downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snow shoeing and mall hopping! Though we've yet to come across a Starbucks in Columbia County, we can list coffee, doughnut and sandwich stops between Stuyvesant Landing and Clermont Historic Site, including those with warm restrooms. Birders are not averse to creature comforts!

One of the greatest benefits of our repeated river outings has been learning those sites offering public access. They are not as numerous as one might expect, so every one is precious! I hope the list will not be lost, that it will, in fact, grow longer. Presently we can access river frontage at Stuyvesant Landing; Ferry Landing, Nutten Hook; Stockport Landing; Hudson Boat Dock; Squatter's Island, Hudson; a bit of Greendale Ferry; the mouth of the Roe-Jan Kill; Lasher Park, Germantown; "Apple Landing," Germantown; Cheviot Landing; Clermont Historic Site.

Like the river, the productivity of inland sites varies with the weather. With open water, Bell's Pond, Old Pond and Copake Lake are worth birding. Open streams are good, for example, the Valatie Kill at North Chatham, the Stein kill at Chatham; Stockport Creek at Columbiaville; the Roe-Jan, and North Creek in Ghent,

Each year, the results of our ADBC count are reported to the New York State Ornithological Association (NYSOA) for publication in its journal, The Kingbird. Bryan Swift, of NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, coordinates the Region 8 count.

That brings us to 2006. Five of us — Nancy Kern, Bob Carroll, Suzanne Carroll, Marion Ulmer and I — completed ADBC's count on Tuesday, January 17. With Owen Whitby, for years our "official” counter, unable to participate, the weighty responsibility was delegated to Bob Carroll. Thank you, Bob, for a great job.

This year we counted nine species, up from our 23-year average of 7.7 species. They included snow goose, Canada goose, mute swan, American black duck, mallard, common goldeneye, hooded merganser, common merganser and, for the first time ever, ruddy duck. Scanning with her telescope across the Hudson from Lasher Park Landing, Nancy found the little female swimming just off Embocht Island, with confirmation sightings by the Carrolls and me. (Marion birded inland at Chatham.)

Some years ago, another component was added to the January Waterfowl Count when Peter Nye of DEC's Endangered Species Unit asked participating clubs to broaden their count to include Bald Eagles. That is a story entire of itself, one to save for a future edition of The Warbler.

From The Warbler, Volume 48, Number 2, February 2006