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Cape May Rainy Day Ducks

by Clay Sutton

The small flock of Long-tailed Ducks wheeled around, bearing down the inlet. At the jetty they banked, heading offshore, then reversed and came back in. It was almost as if they were running laps, flying laps as it were, on an invisible track or race course.

It was exercise, of course, even migratory restlessness. It might have been in part frivolous fun, but it was also gravely serious. This was courtship. It was hard to tell who was chasing who, sometimes the females were ahead, at times the sleek males would surge to the front. All were now in breeding plumage - and there is nothing classier than a drake Oldsquaw, excuse me, Long-tailed Duck (to be proper), in spring.

Crash Landings

Finally tiring of the spirited chase, they came back in and landed next to the jetty. But unlike other ducks, which actually make an effort to slow, then come skidding in and actually land, long-tails just close their wings and drop out of the sky, like rocks, still seemingly at near full throttle from about six feet up. Splash.

Think of it as a controlled crash, not unlike an F-14 Tomcat landing on an aircraft carrier deck. I don’t know if the Oldsquaw were winded, but I was, just from watching.

Spring birding

Spring was in the air. Well, maybe for the Long-tailed Ducks, but not for birders. As I returned from duck-watching, just a few minutes ago, the thermometer read 37 degrees! The calendar says April, the gray skies and northeast winds say it’s winter still.

Yes, we’ve had some wonderful spring days, but we've also had a bout of east winds and rain. And rainy days in early spring, with the wind coming off the cold Atlantic, give new meaning to the term dreary. It was cold and it was wet.

But I was determined to go birding, darn it! Raining too hard for even a raincoat hike, I decided to opt for a duck day. Few places, really, lend themselves better to rainy day birding than Cape May. And excuse the cliche, but few birds take to water better than ducks!

Cape May Sit-in-the-Car Birding

I’m not really much of a proponent of sit-in-the-car birding, but on a day like today it was just the ticket. The Cape May area offers much to the rainy-day birder.

Cape May Harbor

There are many great vantage points close to town, the concrete ship, the park at the ferry terminal, and Cape May Harbor for example. Farther afield, Sunset Lake, the seawall in North Wildwood, and Ocean Drive across Nummy’s Island come to mind.

Some of the best spots are the back bays behind Stone Harbor and Avalon and, of course, Townsend’s Inlet - more specifically the venerable “Seawatch” location at the parking lot at 7th Street in Avalon. All are great windshield-wiper, “park so the rain doesn’t come in the lee window” birding spots.

There aren’t as many ducks as there were a month ago. Waterfowl begin surging north early - in fact not far behind “ice-out” in most places. But those that remain behind are at their best.

Ducks in Love

Nothing beats watching the spring courtship rituals - the chase of the long-tails, the bowing and flaring displays of punk-rock hairdo drake Red-breasted Mergansers, and the head-bobbing of Common Goldeneye.

Flocks of Bufflehead bob and weave, natty little butterballs bouncing on the waves of the windy bays. Even if it was a rainy day, it’s still as good as it gets - watching complex courtship rituals as fascinating as any behaviors in the bird world.

In Townsend’s Inlet, scoter are the main attraction. Handsome Surf Scoter and velvety Black Scoter perform, and act as if they are completely unaware of the huge northeast wind surf crashing on the rocks. They feed right against the jetties and seawall, diving to go under the breaking waves, in surf that one would think would dash them to a pulp against the rocks.

One male long-tail, in with the scoters, preened as if he were on a millpond, despite the maelstrom around him. Diving ducks love wind and surf and rain. To watch them is to enjoy waterfowl at their best.

There are other benefits too while watching rainy day ducks. Loons are staging, Red-throated are abundant, and many of the Common Loons are now in full breeding plumage - gorgeous finery which is a rare treat for we mid-Atlantic birders.

Red-necked Grebe by Karl Lukens

Also, there are still plenty of Red-necked Grebes around - holdovers from this past winter’s record invasion. They weren’t in today’s high surf, but many still grace back-bay lagoons, and many now indeed, have the classic red neck of their breeding colors.

What’s not to love about a rainy day? Sure, maybe the warblers aren’t migrating, and martins and swallows are hunkered down. The kites will come soon – maybe tomorrow, maybe next week.

But today we have wind and rain, so go with the flow. The rainy-day ducks love it, almost seem to prefer it. Watching the whirling long-tails, and serenaded by their evocative, chatty “south-southerly” song, I think I do too.

What’s a little rain and wind on a gorgeous spring day?


Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

Read more about Clay Sutton.



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