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Winter duck watching in New Hampshire

A common goldeneye and two hooded mergansers at Odiorne State Park.
A common goldeneye and two hooded mergansers at Odiorne State Park.
Brad Sylvester

Most of us think of the New England winter as a time when birds fly south for the winter. Many do, but some birds, most notably ducks, are actually easier to find during the cold winter months. Although some ducks do move south for the winter, many congregate on larger rivers and along the seacoast. It's often possible to spot hundreds of ducks and duck-like birds at a single spot when the lack of open water restricts the number of places they can swim and feed.

Male, female and juvenile male common eiders at Rye Harbor
Brad Sylvester

Often, you may see other rare birds nearby as well. Snowy owls may frequent ice flats and frozen salt marshes during the New England winter, for example.

On January 25th, I visited several favorite winter duck locations and saw eight different identifiable species of ducks and duck-like birds. Although we didn't see a snowy owl on this day, we did find a flock of horned larks at one winter birding hotspot.

You'll need a good set of binoculars, preferably a scope, or a good zoom lens on your camera to get a close-up view from the shore, although some smaller rivers and bays are narrower, you'll often find yourself a good fifty yards or more away from the birds on larger bodies of water.

Salmon Falls River

Our first stop was the Salmon Falls River on Route 101 between Dover, New Hampshire and Eliot, Maine. The river actually defines the border between the two states at this point. There is a small parking area and a public boat ramp just over the Eliot Bridge on the Maine side of the Salmon Falls River. The river, especially near high tide, is quite wide at this point. You'll get good views from the bridge itself (watch for traffic as there are no sidewalks) or from the boat launch.

Although the specific birds present on the Salmon Falls River may vary from day to day, we saw hooded mergansers, red-breasted mergansers, American black ducks, and common loons at this location.

Odiorne State Park

From there, we continued down route 236 to route 1A, and on to Odiorne State Park. There are recent reports of a snowy owl in the salt marshes just before the park entrance, but we weren't able to spot one. Parking at the public boat launch, we first had good looks at a common goldeneye and some hooded mergansers in the narrow estuarine river that flows under the bridge.

From the parking lot, we took the path to Odiorne's Sagamore Trail and then out onto the beach, walking the shoreline to the large stone jetty by the Frost Point Loop. The beach was absolutely covered in seashells. They continue to wash ashore during the winter months while there are decidedly fewer beachcombers. During the pleasant walk, we saw more common loons, American black ducks, and hooded mergansers. We also added buffleheads to our list for the day, bring our total to six species of ducks and duck-like birds.

Rye Harbor

After Odiorne, we continued down 1A along the seacoast to Rye Harbor. Despite rough seas, the harbor breakwaters provide a calm surface for swimming birds and many come quite close to the shore for good looks. We first noticed a common loon right off the boat launch working on getting a crab into its mouth. Although loons lack their bright breeding plumage at this time of year, they are still quite beautiful.

Other species still have full or near full color during January. Buffleheads, goldeneyes, hooded mergansers and eiders all put on a great show of pattern and color (even if those colors are mostly sharply defined black and white) in the winter.

Aside from the loons and some mergansers, we were able to get great views of common eiders. The common eider, according to Mitch Waite's iBird Pro 2 app, is the largest duck in the Northern Hemisphere. Its size, bright plumage and large bill, make it easy to identify even a distance. Within the protective embrace of Rye Harbor, however, we were able to see them relatively close-by and get some good pictures.

Hampton Beach State Park

Continuing down scenic coastal route 1A, we finished the day with a stop at Hampton Beach State Park. This is another spot that has had recent reports of a snowy owl, but again we had no luck finding one this day. There was, however, a very large raft of several hundred ducks out in the bay by the Ocean Boulevard Bridge. Unfortunately, from the Hampton Beach side of the bay, we were well over a hundred yards to the birds and could not reliably pick out all the species. We were able to add black scoters to our list for the day, bringing our total species count of ducks and duck-like birds to a respectable eight for the day.

As an added bonus, there was a flock of horned larks in the park, pecking away at some bird seed scattered for them by an earlier visitor. About thirty were present. Hampton Beach State Park in the winter is probably the best place in New Hampshire to find horned larks. With distinctive facial markings and feather tufts that look like little horns, they are definitely worth a reasonable drive if you've never seen one in person.

Although eight duck species, in about five hours is not a bad sum, there are actually quite a few more that might be found along the New Hampshire seacoast on any given winter day. If you go out to look for winter ducks, be sure to leave us your sighting list in the comment section below.

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