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In Our Backyard: Harlequins on the Rocks

At this time of year I need to be careful to avoid an attack of nature photo withdrawal.

It's after the solstice so it's officially winter.  It's during this season that I need to be careful to avoid an attack of nature photo withdrawal.  It's an awful affliction causing severe agitation when the weather gets cold and inhospitable.  The sufferer is forced out into the bitter weather in search of elusive winter nature photos.  Fortunately this season has been mild and I've not yet suffered any attacks.

In past seasons I've gone in search of ducks at this time of year.  I think of them as being of two types, fresh water and salt water.  Salt water ducks are especially interesting, since we don't see them inland. 

A significant spot for winter ducks is Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island.  In this age of wiki-leaks the National Wildlife Refuge System is one of our federal government’s most well kept secrets.   Established in 1903 by President Roosevelt to preserve our nation's natural heritage for the enjoyment of the public, they now number over 500 around the country.  Sachuest Point on the southeastern tip of Newport Island is one of these refuges.  Oxbow, formerly Fort Devens, in Massachusetts is a more recent addition to the system.

Sachuest's rocky shoreline attracts a number interesting coastal birds in the winter. One is the harlequin duck, so named for the drake’s gaudy plumage.  Harlequins are diving ducks feeding on crustaceans and shellfish, which they pry from rocky crevices in the coastal surf.  Their ability to maneuver among the pounding waves crashing on the rocks is amazing.  I've been told they don't do so unscathed though, rather injuries are common while diving the rocks in the crashing surf.

Another uncommon small, rock-loving shorebird found in Sachuest is the purple sandpiper. It is a tundra breeder that winters along our Atlantic coast.  It is not as daring as the ducks, climbing along the rocks in the surf's spray looking for small crustaceans and other edibles in the seaweed.  Both purple sandpipers and harlequin ducks are found along our rocky shoreline here in Massachusetts too.  While the rocky coast of Cape Ann hosts both these winter birds, at this time of year we choose to travel a bit farther to Sachuest just because we enjoy the Refuge so much.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

julie Labbe December 30, 2011 at 03:53 PM
Loved seeing the harlequins - and I was unaware of the Sachuest Point. Sounds like a great place to go visit!
Sharon Dankwardt January 01, 2012 at 04:36 PM
Looks like a great winter birding place, I can hardly wait to go!

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