Great Egret

Great Egret

Monday, 12 January 2015

January Waterfowl Survey

Early each January, there is a continent wide waterfowl survey. It is done by a combination of volunteers as well as staff of various wildlife related agencies. While I was with MNR, I organized and compiled the local waterfowl survey for the Chatham-Kent, Essex and Lambton areas from 1987 until I retired at the end of 2011. Since then, I've participated as a volunteer. Even though some of us have had a fair bit of field time in recent days looking for birds during the Christmas Bird Count period, any excuse to get out and look for birds is a good enough reason to get out again!

So yesterday, I decided the weather and driving conditions were good enough to head out into. My short route for this waterfowl survey is only from Lighthouse Cove west to Peche Island at Windsor, while other volunteers cover the waterfront of the remaining area. (Fortunately the results of the St. Clair NWA CBC falls into the survey period, or close enough, so the thousands of waterfowl that we tabulate for that is valid for including in this waterfowl is hard to replicate that amount of intensive field effort.)

Lighthouse Cove had changed quite a bit in the last few days. Everything was frozen up solid.

There were only a couple of crows flying around, and an adult Bald Eagle way out on the ice. Even the local mixed/hybrid Mallards were gone.

And that is what the south side of Lake St. Clair looked like all the way to Peche Island! Even at the Lakeside Marina at Belle River, where in past years a couple of pleasure boat owners left their boats at the marina and kept bubblers going beside them all winter which attracted a few ducks, there was no open water. There were a few Canada Geese and Common Mergansers waaay out on the ice off of the marina. I even looked for a Snowy Owl there, which had been observed fairly regularly up until a few days ago, but I didn't see it.

On the way to Peche Island, I drove through parts of rural northern Essex County. With the fierce winds of late, it was clear that a lot of topsoil had been moved from its previous location. Note the very black snow, below!

The area between Peche Island and the Ontario mainland always has some open water, which attracts numerous species of waterfowl. Most were well out, and included several thousand Canvasback, Redhead, scaup, Common Mergansers and a smaller numbers of other species. One particularly attractive bird was this Common Goldeneye, which appeared to be moulting from its first year plumage to an adult plumage.

With the open water and abundant waterfowl, the area attracts Bald Eagles as well. I spoke to one fellow who apparently is a regular visitor, and he told me he had counted a minimum of 19 eagles a day or so earlier, and maybe up to 24. I only saw 6 during the time I was here, and most of them were perched in trees on Peche Island or were flying well out from the marina area.

Under such cloudy conditions, it is easy to tell what age this bird is. If you see a very large raptor which has to be an eagle, and it doesn't seem to have a head, it is an adult Bald Eagle, since its white head blends in so well with the sky.

I am hoping to get out to the St Clair River one of these days, where last year the Bald Eagles put on quite a display. As many as 29 eagles were in the vicinity of Stag Island right at Corunna last year, and a few are back again. There were some great opportunities to see these birds in flight, sometimes presenting some great photo ops such as this one which I photographed there a year ago. Note that it is carrying a fish in its talons, and this bird was headed for a quiet perch to dine on its catch (not a perch :-), in hopes that it wouldn't get harassed by other eagles in the area.

Upon returning to Chatham, I stopped in at the warm water outlet along the Thames River just downstream from the Keil Drive bridge. This area usually has some open water throughout the winter, and is a great magnet for any waterfowl lingering in the area. Mallards are the most common duck, but there are a few American Black Ducks present as well. The latter species is usually evident by its much darker plumage, as noted in the next photo, and is especially easy to separate from female Mallards when they are nearby for comparison.

When the Am Black Ducks are by themselves, and may show a bit paler plumage such as the one below does, one can look at the colour of the bill. A Mallard usually has an orange and black bill, whereas an Am Black Duck has a yellowish green bill. It is entirely possible that the lighter colour of the plumage may be the result of hybridization with Mallard, which happens regularly.

 Canada Geese are typically present in good numbers as well. Here a trio of the several hundred birds present are at rest on a single leg.
 A handful of Common Mergansers are usually around.
 A little surprising was to find this male Green-winged Teal. It is a small duck, as you can see compared to the Mallards and Canada Geese near by. The vast majority are normally hundreds of kilometres south by this time of year. We did get a couple on the SCNWA CBC a few days ago. Due to its small size, it can easily be hidden behind some of the larger birds.
 It stands out more when it is on its own.

And as mentioned, the most common duck present is the Mallard. In spite of  how ubiquitous they are, they really are a striking duck.


  1. Great pictures and sounds like a great day. Seems strange for the teal to be hanging around yet. In my limited experience, they should have moved on from Ontario by now.

    1. Hi was a great day to be out, and seeing a few species as I did made it worthwhile. The Green-wing was definitely a bonus!

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