Few people would know what a scaup was if you asked them.
The small black and white duck with a bright blue bill spends most of its time some distance from shore in large bays and ponds and isn’t easily viewed by people without binoculars, but is one of Long Island’s most storied and prolific waterfowl species — as one of the main targets of the commercial market hunting on Great South Bay that provided a staple for New Yorkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Great South Bay, Moriches Bay, Shinnecock Bay and even Lake Agawam in the heart of Southampton Village have played host in the past to huge rafts of thousands of scaup, which are more commonly known as bluebills or broadbill.
For a variety of reasons, little is known about the migration and breeding habits of the subset of the scaup population that moves up and down the Eastern Seaboard in spring and fall, so a local group of waterfowl enthusiasts and student scientists the State University of New York have begun a program on local bays to start compiling a database of information about Long Island’s scaup, in the hope of learning more about where they gather in the spring to propagate their numbers and why their numbers seem to be increasing locally while remaining stagnant in much of the rest of the country.
The Long Island Waterfowl Heritage Group and researchers from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry have been capturing the ducks in the bays off Southampton, Hampton Bays and Quogue for the last three years, taking feather samples and affixing small metal bracelets known as bands to the feet of the ducks before releasing them so that some day the ducks will hopefully be captured again and their movements can be plotted.
The Long Island Waterfowl Heritage Group was founded during the bitter winter of 2015, when a group of local waterfowlers bucked up other hunters to purchase bags of corn and spread them along the shorelines of local bays to provide sustenance to waterfowl species that were blocked from most food sources by the thick blanket of ice across every body of water in the region. Co-founder Craig Kessler had just retired from a three-decade career at Ducks Unlimited, North America’s largest wetlands conservation and waterfowl habitat protection organization, and was looking to continue working to understand and help grow populations of ducks and geese that local sportsmen stalk each fall.
“It appears the scaup we are now seeing could be breeding in the eastern provinces of Canada, and the banding work we are doing will help substantiate this,” Mr. Kessler said. “Traditionally most scaup bred in the central prairie grassland provinces and the boreal forest as far as the arctic circle.The mission of DU is habitat preservation, but complementing that is the mission of the Long Island Wildfowl Heritage Group which is to perpetuate the historically abundant populations of waterfowl and waterfowl hunting on Long Island, through science, management, and education.”
Scaup are a species of what are classified as “diving ducks” because they feed primarily by diving as much as 30 feet under water to the bottom of lakes and bays to snatch up grasses or snails. This habit makes it fairly easy for Mr. Kessler and his student scientist team to dupe them into swimming into an underwater opening in a cage set near shore and salted with a some kernels of corn.
Once inside the cage, they are unable to find their way out again and were easy for SUNY researchers Colin Tiemann and Aaron Kleinhenz to scoop up on a recent Saturday morning. Placed gently in cages lined with straw, they are removed one by one and outfitted with their bands and get a quick clip of their feathers.
Historically, the two subspecies of scaup were the second most common ducks in North America, after the iconic green-headed mallards. After rebounding from the commercial hunting slaughter of the 19th and early 20th centuries, to a total population of more than 6 million birds, the species has suffered a mysterious decline in numbers since the 1980s, thanks to breeding failures, and is currently barely half what it once was.
But the breeding population that lives along the Eastern Seaboard has been studied little and some researchers think may be as much as 50 percent larger than it is understood to be because banding efforts on the central Canadian prairies tend to miss bluebill breeding areas in eastern Ontario, which is most likely to be the source of most of Long Island’s scaup.
So Mr. Kessler’s group and the SUNY researchers are conducting their own sample study.
Along with affixing the bands to the ducks’ legs, which will only pay information dividends years down the road, they are also collecting small clippings of wing feathers, which are being analyzed by SUNY researcher Brittnie Fleming and professor Michael Schummer, Ph.D., to isolate hydrogen isotopes in the ducks that will give hints about where the duck was actually hatched.
The researchers praised the local effort as a boost to the effort to better understand how a key component of local traditions can be helped to persevere.
“The Long Island Wildfowl Heritage Group has been a perfect match with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry,” said Dr. Schummer. “Craig Kessler and his group look to conserve waterfowling traditions of Long Island by conserving waterfowl and wetland resources of the region; and in that process, Craig reached out to our lab at ESF to ensure decisions by the LIWHG were informed by the best science available.”