Sea Ducks

(This column was first published in the March 1, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    The Great Lakes at this time of year do not offer an inviting prospect. Lake Erie west of the boom is jammed with ice and Lake Ontario, although largely ice-free, is hardly less forbidding.

    In late February I park my car near the lighthouse in Golden Hills State Park and stare out over Lake Ontario. The brown waters near shore give way to dismal gray a few yards out and only at the horizon to a deep blue. A cold northwest wind blows in lines of whitecaps and dirty clouds hang low in an ominous sky. Under them I see no signs of life.

    But closer scrutiny with binoculars provides contradictory evidence. Hidden in the turbulent waters are ducks. I discover one or two, then dozens and finally hundreds. Many are a quarter mile out but, by the time I have scanned all the way from east to west, the lake seems crowded with waterfowl.

    They only bob into sight for a second or two before they either retreat behind the waves or dive under them. Watching these birds is like trying to look at a picture in a shop window across a street filled with traffic. Needless to say, identification takes patience.

    These are sea ducks, quite unlike the dabblers -- mallards and black ducks, for example -- of our ponds and streams. Although they can dive, dabbling ducks generally tip up to feed in shallow water. These sea ducks swim down many fathoms to feed on fish and bottom vegetation.

    On this day the common goldeneye is most prevalent. They do have yellow eyes, but the more obvious field mark on the male is a round white spot between his eye and bill. It stands out clearly against his otherwise dark head. (The less striking females of all species are more difficult to identify and are not described here.)

    Similar to the goldeneye in general appearance (except for the eye spot) are common and red-breasted mergansers. These mergansers and the goldeneye all appear mostly black and white, but their heads shine dark green in better light. The mergansers have a longer profile and a thin red bill. Small groups of them paddle about and more fly by, their streamlined bodies thin as arrows.

    Closer in are a few smaller ducks called buffleheads that are also superficially similar to goldeneyes. In place of the goldeneyes' eye patches, however, the rear quadrants of the buffleheads' dark heads are white.

    Five greater scaup join the buffleheads. Black head and breast, gray back, white sides and black rears give this common winter species a familiar appearance. In a few days lesser scaups -- almost dead-ringers -- will join them migrating north.

    Still farther out drift ducks that appear all black. They are scoters, their swollen bills giving them the appearance of birds with sinus congestion. Three species are found here in winter with the white-winged scoter by far the most common. I am finally able to pick out one surf scoter by the white head markings that lead to the hunters' name, skunkbird.

    Today there are only a few oldsquaws, an unflattering name for lovely ducks with mostly white coloration. I think of them as the seagoing equivalent of the snow buntings of our winter fields. There will soon be more: thousands of oldsquaws are already gathering at the mouth of the Niagara River.

    My final count here is over 200 ducks of nine species but before I leave I look out over the lake again. To the naked eye it appears just as empty as it did when I arrived. -- Gerry Rising