Many species of ducks and geese spend their winters in the Harbor Bight's coastal waters.
Early winter is a great time to see ducks in the Harbor Bight region, as they descend into its bays and wetlands in great trailing lines from outposts as far-flung as western Alaska. Greater and lesser scaup are diving ducks that arrive from Alaska and from Canada's boreal regions to their wintering grounds here on the Atlantic coast, where they feed on clams and other animals and plants. Greater and lesser scaup, which often spend time together in the Harbor Bight area, raise their young in different places, with greater scaup nesting on tundra -- mostly in Alaska -- and lesser scaup scattering more widely to breed, from Quebec to the prairie pothole region to the Arctic circle. Scaup are late breeders, taking two years to reach sexual maturity instead of one, which is more usual for diving ducks.
Unfortunately, greater scaup populations have seen a steady decline since the 1980s. In Long Island Sound, populations have dropped by 80 percent, and biologists believe the bird is declining throughout the entire Atlantic coast; so sightings, though not yet rare, are precious. Greater scaup are at risk from the usual suspects -- habitat loss, pollution, disturbance, overharvesting and predation -- and their fondness for an invertebrate diet may be making them particularly vulnerable to water contaminated with toxins, which accumulate in their bodies when they feed in polluted areas like the Harbor Bight. On top of this, a decline in clams and other shellfish from overharvesting and "brown tides" may be helping to drive scaup out of the Harbor Bight by reducing the bird's prey base in the area.
Also wintering in the Harbor Bight are all three North American merganser species: common, hooded and red-breasted. These eccentric-looking birds, with their tufted heads, are the only diving ducks that specialize in eating fish; they have long, skinny bills specially serrated for grabbing and holding their slippery prey. They can be found in bays and estuaries along the south shore of Long Island and the New Jersey shore, as well as in open waters off Long Island and New Jersey and inland wetlands such as those in the Meadowlands.
Where to See Them: The best places to see scaup are the Great South Bay, where about one-fifth of the New York population winters, and Jamaica Bay. Mergansers can be found in bays and estuaries along the south shore of Long Island and the New Jersey shore, as well as in open waters off Long Island and New Jersey and inland wetlands such as those in the Meadowlands.
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The Harbor Bight is also a good place to see geese. Atlantic brant are small geese, weighing three pounds or less, that mate for life and migrate to the Arctic Circle and beyond to breed. They winter along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to North Carolina, but the greatest concentrations are in New Jersey, where almost three-quarters of wintering brant can be found (surveys estimated 124,590 birds for 2002).
An ideal habitat for brant is one that is rich in eelgrass, the main ingredient of their winter diet. And look for beautiful snow geese, whose populations are burgeoning in the marshes of southern New Jersey, such as those of the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, and sometimes further north at Sandy Hook and Jamaica Bay. Snow goose numbers have grown so much in recent years that scientists worry the birds' vast flocks may do major damage to their fragile arctic nesting habitats.