At first glance, it looked like a floating sheet of ice and dirty snow, slowly shifting in the currents of Taunton River. Then my eyes adjusted and started to pick out shapes among the mass.
It was ducks. Hundreds of ducks.
Looking through my camera lens, I zoomed into the group of eiders to watch them preening and stretching their wings. Clustered together, they floated in a giant eddy formed by a rocky islet below Tidal Falls, also known as Sullivan Falls.
It was a mild February day, with a bright sun and blue skies. In search of wildlife to photograph, I realized that I’d chosen the right spot.
Tidal Falls Preserve is a small parcel of land that overlooks what’s known as a set of reversing falls in Taunton Bay, between Sullivan and Hancock. As the tide rises and falls, water flows through the narrow channel and over ledges to form rapids and swift, spinning currents.
In Maine, there are at least eight “tidal” or “reversing” falls, according to an online resource created by the Maine Sea Grant. I’ve visited one other: Cobscook Falls off the coast of Pembroke.
But that morning I wasn’t at Tidal Falls Preserve to view the falls. In fact, I barely paid attention to the churning water. My mind was focused on wildlife.
When I arrived at the preserve, I parked at the upper parking lot by the offices for the Frenchman Bay Conservancy, the land trust that owns the property. The State of Maine holds a conservation easement on the property as well.
A gate barred an unplowed driveway that led down to a second parking lot that’s closer to the water’s edge. During warmer months, that driveway and parking area are open to accommodate an influx of visitors. With picnic tables dotting the lawn, it’s a place for people to relax and enjoy views of the water. It’s also a spectacular spot for land trust events.
Dogs aren’t allowed on the preserve, though they are permitted on all other Frenchman Bay Conservancy properties. So I left my dog, Juno, in the car.
Deer tracks punctured the icy snow. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many in one place. As I followed the criss-crossing paths of tracks with my eyes, I imagined a herd of deer wandering the rolling lawn.
An octagonal observation deck atop a small building drew my attention, so I walked there first. And that’s where I spied the raft of ducks, floating below the falls. Also through my camera lens, I spotted several loons, which are easy to overlook while in their gray winter plumage.
I left the deck to walk across the snowy lawn to the water’s edge, where I watched red-breasted mergansers fishing in the swift current. One of the female mergansers caught something quite big, but from so far away, I couldn’t tell what it was.
I was scanning a rockweed covered ledge with my camera when I spied a group of American black ducks. Similar in appearance to female mallards, black ducks have a slightly different color pattern: a dark brown body with a pale brown-gray head. The shift in hue is so abrupt on their necks that it’s easy to spot. Also, black ducks have yellow bills, which set them apart from mallard females, which have orange and black bills.
A juvenile bald eagle appeared out of nowhere and flew straight at me (or so it seemed), then turned and crossed the water to perch in a pine tree. The raptor’s mottled brown plumage caused it to all but disappear into the branches and needles.
My attention then returned to the massive raft of eiders. “What were they doing?” I wondered. “Why gather together like that?”
According to the article “Understanding Waterfowl: Flocking Together” by John Coluccy and Kassondra Hendricks, birds flock together for several reasons that have to do with survival and securing a mate.
In the winter, eiders typically flock in rocky marine waters, where they dive down and pry mussels from rocks, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. Pairs, which are monogamous, copulate during fall and winter. So I suppose some of that might have been going on in the big raft, too.
Upon returning home, I zoomed into my photos to count the ducks. The males are mostly white, with black bellies, a long yellow bill and pale green on the back of their necks. The females are a less showy brown. At 250 ducks, my eyes started to cross. I’m guessing there were at least 400.
I also found two black scoters among the eiders. With bright orange bills and black bodies, they stood out against all the white and brown. I searched and found them in several photos, kind of like playing “Where’s Waldo.”
After this experience, I searched the internet for information about eider ducks and discovered the video “The famous Eider duck Colony in Longyearbyen, Svalbard: a tourist attraction is about to disappear” on the YouTube channel Best Wildlife Stories. If you’re into watching short wildlife videos, that one is worth a look.
Eider ducks are common along the Maine coast. They’re a hardy northern bird, so you’ll rarely find them south of the Mid-Atlantic states. They use their down to line their nests. And that down is so warm and soft that in some places, like Iceland, people actually harvest it from the nests after they’ve been abandoned for the season.
After my trip to Tidal Falls, I visited a park in Ellsworth where I watched a herd of deer cross an icy part of the Union River. It was a day full of unexpected observations, one that I’ll fondly look back on when wildlife hides from me on other days.