Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Counting Ducks

On Sunday January 10, Jean and I birded the Lake Ontario shoreline, assisting John Black with the annual Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) winter waterfowl count.

In the Niagara Region, the lake's shoreline is divided into 4 sections. Last year we had a great time counting waterfowl between Fifty Point and Vineland. This year we would cover the shoreline from Vineland to the Port Weller west pier at the entrance to the Welland Canal.

After meeting with the rest of the group (John, Dan & Maggie) we travelled west along the QEW to our first stop in Vineland. Views of the lake did not look promising. We observed a large amount of ice on the lake. Close to shore there was not much open water at all.

After counting Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, White-winged Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser and Mallard (2) in a temperature of -10 degrees, hot beverages were required. At the well known Canadian doughnut chain we ran into the birders counting waterfowl west of Vineland. Birders and cyclists seem to flock to this establishment.

Continuing east, we stopped at the Beacon marina in Jordan. Water in the marina was totally frozen over and a few fishermen were trying their luck at some ice fishing.

"Who's crazier?", I thought aloud, "The ice fishermen or the birders?".

Long-tailed Duck and Common Merganser were added to our list of waterfowl observed.

We added another 10 Red-breasted Merganser at a second spot in Jordan.

Though we observed a large amount of ice heading to Charles Daley Park we took a chance that there may be some open water near the Town of Lincoln managed park.

Another 100+ Red-breasted Merganser. It was starting to look like the duck of the day for us. A few gulls were out on the water and thanks to Dan, a Thayer's Gull was spotted.

After a short stop where farmland meets suburbia (more goldeneye and mergansers), we counted a large number of waterfowl at the marina by Lakeside Park. Up until Port Dalhousie we had encountered only 3 Mallards. Here, close to 600 Mallards dabbled in the open water where sailboats are moored during the warmer months. A new edition to our list was a single Greater Scaup, the only scaup species seen in our area. American Black Duck (2) and American Coot (2) were also added.

Over on the east side, we walked by the lighthouse Neil Peart sat by in his youth and observed an adult Bald Eagle soaring over the lake. Once again, large numbers of Red-breasted Merganser (200) sat on the lake east of the pier.

Yes, it was very cold walking back to the car, especially with a south-west wind blowing in our faces.

Between Port Dalhousie (a former entrance of the Welland Canal) and the current canal there is not much public access. So our next stop, the Port Weller west pier, would be our last. The Welland Canal is federal land and with new security measures in place the west pier is no longer accessible to the public. During counts (CBC's and MNR counts) birders are granted access. When we are not participating in counts, Jean and I bird along the trail on the east pier.

Travelling in Dan's car to the end of the pier, we could see we were the first to set foot here since the last snowfall. The only evidence of visitors were the coyote tracks along the side of the seaway road. A large amount of ice had been pushed into the Welland Canal, reducing the number of waterfowl that usually occur here.

While looking north towards Toronto, I observed a Great Black-backed Gull flying above the cold swells of the lake but no new waterfowl species were found at the end of the pier.

Returning along the seaway road, we stopped to turn our attention to the birds in the trees and brush. Close to a dozen American Robins (an addition for the year and winter lists) fed from the berries of some Sumac trees.

One last chance for waterfowl was at the outflow of the sewage treatment plant. Warm, treated water flowing into the canal left an open area for the ducks. Within the large flock of Mallards (200) we spotted 2 Hooded Merganser.

After locking the gate behind us we had one last addition to the count. 5 Double-crested Cormorant stood on the ice below Lock 1, a great find for this time of year.

Overall, we observed 13 species and a total of 2017 waterfowl from Vineland to the Port Weller west pier. Quite a small number in comparison to the Fifty Point to Victoria group who counted over 10,000 Long-tailed Ducks.

A few days later, John sent results for the year's count as well as a second spreadsheet with results from the last 26 years. Prior to 1984, I believe the count was conducted from the air.

For this year's count, we had a record number of Mallard and Long-tailed Duck. Looking at the previous years was very interesting. Since 1984, only 3 Northern Pintail have been observed, 2 in 1990 and 1 in 2009. Only three pintails over a 26 year period and Jean was responsible in spotting the lone pintail amongst 100's of Mallards at 40 Mile Creek during our first duck count last year.

Though the day of birding was done for Jean and I, Dan and John headed to the Adam Beck overlook in an attempt to observe the reported Mew Gull and a possible second Mew Gull of the European subspecies commonly known as the Common Gull. According to Ontbirds report, no sightings occurred on the 10th. An additional report on the 14th from the WNY Dial-a-Bird also had no new reports of the Mew Gulls. Whether a new sighting appears on Ontbirds or not, a drive to the Falls is in order. I still have some gulls to add to my winter list. I'll let you know how that works out.

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