For many birders, peak seasonal excitement is reserved for the spring and fall, when colorful songbirds pass through our area. Warblers are great, and when April and May come around I will be out incurring warbler neck along with everyone else in New York with an eBird account. But winter birding? That has a mellower vibe.
“I started birding in fall,” says Gloria Hong, who is mostly on the lookout in Central Park. “I remember trying to get views of warblers, It’s so hard, and they move so frenetically. Lots of migrants are really hard to observe and ID.” But if migrant songbirds are like a toddler mainlining Red Bull, ducks are your grandpa with a brandy snifter.
“Winter is a calmer time in the park, so there’s always less people,” Hong says. “And it’s very calming to watch [the ducks]. They glide on the water, they’re comical on land -- the way they walk, they’re clumsy. I feel more at peace watching ducks than other types of birds.”
Shannon Curley is a wildlife biologist who conducts research at Fresh Kills and an adjunct professor at the College of Staten Island. She’s also partial to winter birding. “Once these warblers migrate back, getting these really fun and surprisingly colorful sea ducks is something I look forward to every year,” she said. “The incredible amount of diversity that we get in the waterfowl in the winter is just really impressive, especially in the New York City area.”
(Look, you could be birding in Arctic Bay this winter, where you will reliably see… just one species.)
Winter is when all the good ducks are in the five boroughs—many of them breed in Canada and Alaska and treat the city like their personal Palm Beach. They arrive in the fall and are gone in early spring -- so get them while the getting is good. Here’s a list of my personal favorites and where to spot them. (I’m not including the mallard, which is an excellent duck, but you probably already know them and they’re here year-round.)
I’m starting off with a bang, because this black-and-white stunner (yes, sexually dimorphic; the females and immature males are more understated ) packs a wallop of iridescence, especially when the sun hits his face. They are many people’s favorite duck, and understandably so. They’re smaller than a mallard, they dive like fiends, and they can reliably be spotted on most ponds in New York City, especially the Central Park Reservoir.
That bill! Those eyes! That collaborative spinning feeding behavior that looks like it could open a rift in the space-time continuum! They can be spotted on lots of ponds in the area, especially Baisley Park, Queens. You can’t miss them in Central Park or in Prospect Park, either.
While there are a few merganser species in our area (common, red breasted), it’s the hooded merganser who will make you readjust your binoculars as you zoom in.
Bonus: they have, as Hong describes, “insane courtship rituals.” Shannon Curley says, "It almost looks like the males are curtseying, or bowing.” The male will flare his crest and bob his head to get the female’s attention, often throwing in a “sexy croak” for good measure. But it doesn’t always work; Hong says—“I notice a lot of times the males just seem to be posturing to each other. The female isn’t even paying attention.” (Perhaps she is looking for some crayfish.)
They tend to be pond ducks, although I’ve spotted them in the water off Floyd Bennett Field.
Compact, sleek, blue-billed (but usually not in winter), the ruddy duck is seemingly everywhere -- Central Park, Jamaica Bay -- sitting with its bill tucked around its back and its jaunty tail poking out above the water.
Coots are not ducks (no webbed feet, for one) -- they’re more like pond chickens -- but I’m including them because they are just fun, even though their inclusion in this story will probably vex scientists. But coots have a lot to recommend them: they have an excellent name, an excellent way of bobbing their heads as they paddle around, and their feet will remind you that birds are really just small dinosaurs. Several hang out on Central Park’s reservoir.
The most extra of all the ducks in NYC, in my opinion -- the males have to be seen to be believed. Perhaps the duck most visually reminiscent of our dearly departed Mandarin duck (aka Mandarin Patinkin, aka the original Hot Duck).
Colorful, bizarre; their heads look like they’re wearing a backwards baseball cap. You will get lost staring at them. Male wood ducks have the advantage of being very hard to confuse with any other type of duck. (The females have a dark face with a big ring around the eye.) Unlike most other waterfowl, they nest in trees -- hence the name. I’m cheating a little bit because they are here in NYC year-round, but they are too fabulous to leave off this list. The Prospect Park Lake is a good place to spot them.
An example of when a duck lives up to its name, the pintail can be identified by its tail.
José Ramírez-Garofalo is a Ph.D student at Rutgers, where he’s studying ecology, evolutionary biology and natural resources. Pintails are “different from other dabbling ducks,” he said. "They’re really fancy; they have the pintail, they’re pretty big, the pattern on their head and neck -- they’re really cool to look at. They’re otherworldly to me.”
Back in 2018, Ramírez-Garofalo had what can only be described as a Perfect Pintail moment, when he and his mother were at Great Kills Park on the East Shore of Staten Island, watching a snowy owl (which alone would have been enough, IMO). “Out of nowhere, thousands of northern pintails landed way out on the bay, we saw them, we didn’t think anything of it, and they just started to move to the marsh. They were there for two days, and it was the largest congregation of northern pintails on the coast of New York ever recorded -- over 3,000 of them. They were so beautiful -- that was the first time I really appreciated northern pintails. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
I’ve softened you up with the pond ducks -- easy to spot! Literally sitting ducks! And now you’re ready for sea ducks. Prepare for hours spent on a windy beach staring at specks bobbing in the ocean. One of the ones you are most likely to see off NYC beaches is the common eider. (There are also king eiders in our area, but they are less, well, common). These are the ducks known for the quality of their down, which Cornell says is “typically harvested from nests without harming the birds.”
The males are black and white, and females are a beautiful patterned brown, and in both sexes their bills make them look weirdly regal. Highly recommend.
The savvy birder knows there are three types in our neck of the ocean: surf, black, white-winged. It’s not too hard to distinguish between them, and because all three are present here it’s a good way to test your birding (ducking?) skills. Coney Island is a good place to spot them.
Again, another sea duck that lives up to its name. Black and white and brown ducks with crazy long tails.
“On the ocean side in Brooklyn and parts of Staten Island, you have really large congregations of long-tailed ducks, and that’s also true of Breezy Point and the Rockaways -- those are globally significant numbers that winter off the beaches there,” says Ramirez Garofalo.
Why is it a sea duck? They hang out on the sea, and their legs are placed further back on their bodies. “That’s to help them dive deeper and swim in deeper waters,” says Curley. “You likely won’t see them walking much on land, and when they do, they’re actually pretty awkward.”
Bonus Duck: The Harlequin Duck
This is a bonus duck that’s hard to find in the five boroughs but worth a trip: I drove 111 miles last January and ventured out onto an icy jetty while the air temperature was in the teens to see Harlequin ducks, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.