Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ducks: the Undead

Hopefully this is the last of my "Lake Ontario Ice" series... Over the past 5-6 days there has been some big swings in ice formation/loss, form and structure... The start of the period saw ever increasing (and thickening) ice stuck along the shoreline... I was starting to think it may not leave until things began melting, but a wicked WNW finally broke it free and sent it packing... 

Over the following days we went from solid/tick ice, open water, slush, new/thin lake ice, broken (almost pancake like) ice, open water, more thin lake ice, to fully open water once again. The ducks and gulls adjusted accordingly, and the birding was different with each passing day. In between new lake ice and pancake ice was a day with fairly steady NE winds, slowly breaking away at the offshore edge... Any small pockets inside the ice was packed with ducks, while the edge was steadily patrolled by eagles and gulls. 

Above image: the NE wind morning. New/thin lake ice with scattered (small) open pockets. Further out is open water.... It was on this morning that I witnessed one of the strangest ice/duck related events at any point in these past two (freakin cold) winters... I had the camera ready, and am now able to tell the tale through my images!

You'll have to excuse the poor quality of the images.... Introducing the star of the show - this Long-tailed Duck (we'll call him Steve). Steve is one of those Long-tailed Ducks that decide to land on the solid/slick ice and sit around hopelessly. I have recently began to wonder if ducks like Steve are simply freezing to death and/or going delirious due to the extreme cold. Steve clearly has access to open water within a few feet, and there should be no shortage of food (zebra mussels) in the west end of Lake Ontario... Yet Steve sits on the ice... 

Unfortunately Steve has attracted the attention of a Bald Eagle... I immediately begin to wonder what sort of evasive action he will employ to escape this large and dangerous predator. Take flight and run? Scramble for the open water and dive? Fight back? ... 

If you chose "flail around on the ice uselessly", you have chosen correctly. This awkward flapping occurred for a few seconds as the eagle actually landed BESIDE the duck, before taking flight once more and landing directly on top. 

With a horrible display of survivorship, it is no surprise that this has occurred. I watch the Eagle for a few seconds before turning by gaze elsewhere. I've seen this part of the movie before... With upwards of 5-6 Bald Eagles cursing around the lake, there is no shortage of snacking going on out there.. 

If anything, I was surprised to see the Eagle LEAVING only a few minutes later. I would have thought a Long-tailed Duck would provide a better snack then that!!! Note the surviving White-winged Scoter - in the WATER... 

Within 30 second another Eagle decided to fly over and investigate the leftovers. I can't help but think (once again) that these birds are LAZY when it comes to hunting, but I guess it works for them... The new Eagle swoops down for the easy meal, and then it happend!!!

Steve raises his head!!! AHH!!!! ZOMBIE DUCK!!!!!!!!!

Even the Eagle was scared, swooping upwards and hovering overhead..... Zommmmbiieeessssss!

Doing the only logical move, Eagle 2 lands beside the undead Steve to investigate before making any further moves. It was at this moment that I began to understand the brilliance of this predator-defence unfolding before my eyes... 

Zombie Steve plays this to it's fullest effect... He once again flails around on the ice, wings beating - hardly moving - and presumably screaming "ZOMBIE DUCK!!! OOoooOOoOOOOooOoo... Don't eat me!!! I'm zombie duck!!!" 

If you've ever heard that people who exude confidence are likely to succeed, zombie Steve is the poster boy for such thoughts. After a rousing display, he throughly breaks the will and confidence of Eagle 2 by promptly FALLING ASLEEP... No more than 2 feet away from his towering predatory foe. 

After spending a few minutes contemplating life, Eagle 2 is left with no choice but to fly away and search for undead ducks in their appropriate habitat of open water (see image below). 

I felt privileged to watch such a remarkable display, potentially one that has never been fully documented before... This single Long-tailed Duck decided that cheating death would not be enough, but truly transcended the situation and became death itself. As the human onlooker, I now need to decide how best to publish the events I have witnessed and documented (beyond the blog, of course). Will it be in the Auk? The Condor? The Wilson Journal? Check back later for an update, but I can tell you right now it won't be the Canadian Field Naturalist... 

Turning back to reality, I wonder what other excitement will occur on the Lake before we finally start to see warmer temps? I had my first migrant American Crow's on the 2nd, and weather forecasts are hinting that we may start to see temperatures closer to the freezing mark over the next two weeks. The magic of migration will be moving at a rapid pace before we know it... NOAA has shown us around 88-89% ice cover on the Great Lakes over the past few days, and I think the night of the 2nd-3rd (before I wrote this) may be one of our last good chances for ice buildup on Lake Ontario for the winter! Bring on the birds!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

2015 BIG YEAR - February Update

February 2015

This is the second monthly summary of my 2015 CONDO BIG YEAR!!!

Red dot is my condo building

Red mark is the blue area defined in the first map

Click for - BIG YEAR RULES

The birds! (new species in bold)-

Canada Goose - 268
Mute Swan - 4
Gadwall - 2
American Black Duck - 2
Mallard - 17
Redhead - 11
Greater Scaup - 241
Lesser Scaup - 1
Surf Scoter - 762
White-winged Scoter - 8745
Black Scoter - 14
Long-tailed Duck -16121
Bufflehead - 19
Common Goldeneye - 1345
Common Merganser - 263
Red-breasted Merganser - 2409
Common Loon - 1
Horned Grebe - 2
Sharp-shinned Hawk - 1
Bald Eagle - 22
Red-tailed Hawk - 6
Ring-billed Gull - 453
Hering Gull - 2900
Thayer's Gull - 2
Iceland Gull - 14
Glaucous Gull - 76
"Nelson's" (Herring X Glaucous) Gull - 1
Great Black-backed Gull - 450
"Great Lakes" (Herring X Great Black-backed) Gull - 1
Rock Pigeon - 2
Mourning Dove - 387
Snowy Owl - 7
Downy Woodpecker - 2
American Kestrel - 1
Merlin - 1
American Crow - 1
Common Raven - 2
Black-capped Chickadee - 4
American Robin - 1
European Starling - 134
Snow Bunting - 4
American Tree Sparrow - 11
Dark-eyed Junco - 2
Northern Cardinal - 28
House Finch - 7
Common Redpoll - 1
House Sparrow - 655

Total species - 45

Total ebird checklists - 22

Best birds of the month: COMMON RAVENS(2), Snowy Owls (7), Thayer's Gulls (2), Hybrid Gulls

Useless seasonal rarities: Common Loon, American Robin

Highlight "big year" birds: COMMON RAVEN!!! But also some copies from last month (Snowies, Redpoll etc)

Checklists of the month:

#1 - (3 snowies?! good gulls!?)
#2 - (several neat sightings)
#3 - (storm! hopefully March is better...)

Total species added to the big year this month: 5

Big year total to date: 50

Target species going forwards: Should I try for Great Horned or Eastern Screech via audio calls? From my balcony? Or on the ground? I didn't do it in February, that's for sure... Now hopefully we get some epic migration in March! Maybe some good raptors? Golden Eagle? Goshawk? And dare I say Gyrfalcon!?

eBird needs alerts - ebird seems to have deleted this feature (???) but you can be darn sure I should have had American Goldfinch by now...

KM driven: 0
KM flown: 0
KM by boat: 0
KM by train: 0
KM by helicopter: 0

(1 Kilometer = 0.621371192237334 Miles)

Previous summaries: January



I could have gone to Florida for the month without hampering my big year effort what-so-ever... But I saw a number of exciting birds - so it was worth staying around! To heck with freezing cold weather, the beauty of condo-birding is staying inside (and warm) while still getting my winter birds... The Ravens on the last day of the month were a major boost and have me ready for migration! (Species 183 all-time for the condo)

Some of the species tallies (7 Snowy Owls, 22 Bald Eagles, 76 Glaucous Gulls) tell me that I'm doing everything right, but there just aren't many rarities around... It takes time to find these megas! If you have been reading along, i'm sure you're well aware that I REALLY want a Gyrfalcon - and keep looking (nearly) every day... This is THEE time to do it!

The behaviour observations and watching the formation of lake ice has also kept my interest. How much longer can we sustain this cold?! In the past 10-15 years, it was not unheard of to get some early spring migrants by now (blackbirds etc), so presumably they're primed and ready to go at the first sign of warmth...

Beyond that, I'm still doing my thing! There is clearly no eiders at my end of the lake... I didn't really add a useful big-year-species - and March is categorically the worst time of the year for mega-rares... Oh well - you can bet I will keep on lookin! By the end of the month I will hopefully have scored some highlight-species - especially in the hawk department where my position along the south side of Lake Ontario catches some of the flight counted at the Beamer Hawkwatch...

Exceptional lake ice - right to the horizon - on February 17th... 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

New thoughts on dead ducks

This could well be considered a continuation of my last blog post, but does a fantastic job leading into some thoughts I've had recently on one of our great birding mysteries - grounded grebes and dead ducks!

I ended the previous post noting that the ducks off my condo had ended the evening, swimming through channels of slush as the waters continued to freeze. Some variation of this has been occurring for several days now, where patches of water open up and re-freeze due to wind, waves, water temperature etc. When I awoke the next morning, all of the remaining ducks (in a similar area) were squished into a small circle of open water that they had managed to keep open overnight.

We are on pace for our coldest February ever, and ice cover on the great lakes has rapidly increased; reaching ~85% in recent days. In fact, for the past week, there is a greater extent of ice coverage (all lakes combined) than any previous (recorded)  year - in the same calendar week... This has initiated the mass wanderings and groundings of waterbirds - especially grebes. It is commonly stated that these birds have been "frozen out" of their wintering haunts due to this ice buildup, and inevitably crash somewhere they did not intend. Yet as I watched Lake Ontario this past weekend, I once again found myself questioning that explanation.

One of the more surprising observations, was various ducks (especially Red-breasted Mergansers, but also Long-tailed Ducks and White-winged Scoters) crash landing on the lake ice, seemingly at random. The above photo has 3 Scoters, and a lone Red-breasted Merganser (left edge) that had been drawn to the small circle of open water, yet just didn't make it. Sometimes the birds rapidly take flight, while others curl up and sleep for minutes to over an hour. A highly unusual place to take a nap, and this behaviour continued throughout the day.

In the evening, a strong offshore wind blew, and considerable patches of open water were made as great sheets of ice floated away.

While there was a number of open water "patches" during the day, I assumed the ducks must have been happy for this breakup to occur, and would return to a more normal routine the following day. If ice were truly the problem, perhaps the issue would be solved! Ungodly nighttime temperatures ensued...

At dawn there was considerably more open water than the previous day, but extreme temperatures had the surface freezing even with a strong offshore breeze. The majority of ducks were flying around and feeding, only showing expected levels of discomfort from the extreme cold (ice forming on their feathers). Yet almost inexplicably there was even more ducks randomly flopping down onto solid sheets of ice - making little attempt to reach water. At times I have seen birds "tricked" into sliding onto smooth/clear ice - potentially appearing like water, but this was not the case here. We're taking snow covered & thick lake ice. Later that morning, my attention turned to a grounded Long-tailed Duck in particular distress. A Great Black-backed Gull had arrived on the scene... 

The gull landed within inches of the duck, and I assumed it was all over - Great Black-backed Gulls are known for their predation of ducks - even at the best of times... The Long-tailed would act aggressively if the gull lowered it's head, but made no attempt to fly away. I was surprised that the gull made few attempts to "end things" and seemed content to hang out. Sometimes the gull was successful in giving the duck a "shake" - yet other times the duck put up enough of a fight to win a small victory.

After some back-and-forth, I was shocked to see the Great Black-backed Gull take flight and start to leave! Surely this little duck isn't too much of a challenge? Yet the gull flew steadily away - before approaching a grounded Red-breasted Merganser! The Merg seemingly knew better, and immediately started running away, and quickly escaped the immediate danger. Then the gull flew right back to the Long-tailed Duck - WHICH MADE NO ATTEMPT TO ESCAPE! Why little duck, why?

Assuming the worst, I watched the gull increase it's attack and land more and more successful blows. The duck defended vigorously, but the gull knew what it wanted. The gull took flight, to do a rapid circle and attack from above - when the crazy duck finally TOOK FLIGHT (!) and ESCAPED!!! I had been convinced that it must have been incapable of flight, yet there she went...

So what did I learn from all of this? It's just a guess - but watching this Long-tailed Duck take a "Great Black-backed beating" - while clearly capable of flight - no more than 100 meters away from open water - I couldn't help but think that the ice coverage of the great lakes has nothing to do with the distress of these birds... In fact, it was the Oakville Painted Bunting that really put me onto this recent train of thought... (if you haven't heard, it died). 

These birds (and the bunting) aren't dying because of ice cover - they're dying because the weather is horribly cold! Winter is a tough time to be a bird in Ontario, but record cold snaps in February are just pushing some of these birds beyond their limits... I don't really know how "cold tolerant" they are, but perhaps it is just too much for many individuals. This is really getting theoretical and doesn't really explain why the grebes are crashing onto roads, but there has been no obvious increase in Red-necked or Horned Grebes at open-water sites along Lake Ontario... If they really needed open water, I would have thought they could find it...

Perhaps there is no real explanation, but after watching the delirious behaviour of ducks crashing onto ice from my condo - with open water in sight - I really began to think that the extreme temperature had more to do with it, and the ice was simply a byproduct. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Living on a lake - frozen style

The Lake continues to be exciting as the ice continuously forms, breaks apart and shifts around... I'm not sure if this is the type of hobby for everyone, but I've really been enjoying watching and documenting the changes. After the rapid buildup I mentioned a few days ago, offshore winds slowly broke away at the edge, until open water wasn't terribly far offshore. Then after a calm night, I awoke to this scene this morning (21st) -

The dark line is open water (the same edge that was open the day before) but >95% beyond that had solid or slushy ice cover... It was ungodly cold this past week (as you may have noticed) and I guess that even a strong offshore breeze wasn't enough to keep the surface clear. After looking at the ice cover maps it was clear that this must have been a fairly local event, (lots of open water out there somewhere) but it was pretty neat to see. With the ice, came a rather good look (for condo standards) of a Snowy Owl straight offshore at 7:30am this morning.

Not the best photo, but my first in a few days - so I was happy. Interestingly enough the bird was eventually flushed by a passing Bald Eagle, something I have seen happen a few times already this winter. I sorta had the impression that Snowies were too bad-a$s to be concerned by much of anything (other than peregrines?) but I guess a BAEA is big enough for alarm... Anyhoot, probably the most interesting/unusual bird behaviour of the past few days has been large wandering groups of White-winged Scoters

In my experiences here over the past 2.5 winters, White-winged Scoters seem to be the least-interested species in ice cover, wind, waves etc. They often just stay put (and may be well offshore) - but these recent freeze events have seemingly startled them a bit, and I have been watching these large groups mill about. Many times they have flown right to the southernmost (near-shore) open water and begin feeding, where normally they're content to stay far away... 

Things change fairly steadily around here, but I have also recently noticed a pretty big decrease in the numbers of Surf Scoters, Common Goldeneye and especially Long-tailed Ducks. The LTDU's seem to be the masters of wandering, so I'd like to think they have simply flown until they found open water on the deeper lakes, but it is also no secret that some birds seem to be trying to find better places to spend their time - and why not? Throughout the day today (on light winds) I watched their remaining open water start to freeze over, until they had little more than slush-trenches to travel through and dive for some food.

I get the impression that may offshore "open patches" are little more than areas kept open by the movement/diving/bathing of ducks (often WW Scoters) - allowing them to hop around from one place to the next - but how long will this last? ... Overnight they are continuing to call for calm winds, so I will be interested to see how things are in the morning. Beyond that we can expect colder temperatures, but they're also calling for rather strong winds. I presume the winds (NW to SW) will be strong enough to really break things up around here, and maybe even bring them back to a semi-normal state. It probably won't help on Huron or Superior, where things are nearly 100% covered, but it will definitely change things up locally. 

Overall it was a pretty neat (and scenic) day of watching the Lake! 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ice birds vs Ice Coverage: The Great Lakes

7-8am this morning

I awoke this morning to a spectacular sight from my condo - a frozen Lake Ontario! Spectacular cold seems to do little in freezing the lake, which was quite evident last winter. Instead, it is light winds and high pressure (along with some freakin cold air) that are the requirements for some clear/smooth new lake ice.

For two winters now we have been blasted with arctic air and have watched the bird-life adjust accordingly. I am thankful to watch the ebb and flow of weather from my condo, where I am safe from the elements - yet it's not the same for our feathers friends. This morning I watched the swarms of Long-tailed (and other) ducks fly in every which way across the smooth (hard) ice surface, only occasionally landing and huddling into groups before flushing with the next passing gull.

The Canadian Ice Service updated their graphics at 5pm this evening, and revealed exactly what I had observed - a mostly frozen lake. Which was repeated elsewhere.

Image; Red and gray are virtually solid.
Spectacular coverage on the three easternmost Great Lakes. Lake Superior is rapidly freezing, while Lake Michigan has extensive buildup along most shorelines. (Below)


Last winter we watched as birds struggled with the harsh conditions. Come March, birds (especially Red-breasted Mergansers) seemed to be struggling everywhere we looked. There has been a lot of chatter about "freeze out" birds, and my personal opinion has been that a few of these birds are truly being "frozen out" from their wintering grounds, while the majority we later into March are returning migrants - depleting their fat supplies only to find inhabitable situations when they return here. This isn't a post to debate the two sides - but a handful of Red-necked Grebes have started appearing in unusual locations... Perhaps a sign of things to come. 

While the record-breaking cold of this past week along with the associated ice-up is likely to effect our birds, I was surprised to see that, on this exact week last year - we actually had similar coverage of ice throughout the Great Lakes. I can only expect much of the coverage on Lake Ontario will breakup by Thursday with strong WNW winds in the forecast. Therefore things may end up being roughly the same.

(Not taking into account the big freeze up last night) 

So all of this information leads me to one obvious question. Where are the ice birds? Thanks to a pair of epic irruptions these past winters, I  have quickly learned that solid lake-ice is my golden ticket to a Snowy Owl (or three)... As things ice up, I also expect to see a dramatic rise in Glaucous Gulls. Both of these things have happened recently. Therefore I am now expecting something "else" to happen, and I don't think I'm out of line in this hope/request. 

I want a Gyrfalcon gawd dammit. 

And with little hesitation, I would trade that for any manner of Ross's or Ivory Gull. These are the grail ice-birds beyond question - and it seems perfectly logical to expect them once the Lake suddenly freezes over - right? 

Ok, I guess not. I am actually inclined to believe that there is no reason what-so-ever to expect these birds, simply because we are experiencing cold and/or snowy weather. If anything, that may well be reason NOT to expect them. Having studied the patter/occurrence of unusual birds in relation to weather for years now, I can say with some small amount of confidence that these beauties are not hindered in any way by cold temperatures or snowfall. They occur a LONG ways away from my little condo, and conditions where THEY live have to be something special/unique to even consider bringing them to our area. 

Take my beloved Ivory Gull for instance. The closest an one has been to my place in recent times was 2010 when an adult was photo'd in Toronto. That year saw RECORD LOW sea ice in Atlantic (and North-eastern) Canada. An abnormally cold winter in 2014-2015 may well be creating a fantastical Ivory Gull Paradise offshore of Labrador - providing no reason what-so-ever for them to leave!

So what is a condo-birder to do? Thankfully birding never fails to excite, and 2014-2015 has seen a moderate irruption of Gyrfalcons into eastern North America with sightings near Kingston, Ottawa, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, New York State (2+), New Hampshire and elsewhere. One of the most recent was actually on the south shore of Lake Ontario - hardly a short-gyrfalcon-ish throw (flap?) from my condo... These birds may well be "around" for factors totally unrelated to our cold weather (or ice buildup on the Great Lakes). I do not know the reasons they've arrived, but I am excited that they are. As the ice appears, I hope a Gyrfalcon will follow...

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Rant: Ontario Nature's Master Naturalist Program

Thanks to my new found endeavors with twitter, I've recently learned that Ontario Nature has partnered with Lakehead University in Orillia to offer an Ontario Master Naturalist Program.

It would seem that this is following in the footsteps of other "master naturalist" programs around North America. I had personally looked at the program offered in Florida, but it would seem to be offered by most states as well as some localized places in Canada (not to mention the registered professional biologist certification in British Columbia).

As you could imagine, becoming a certified "Master Naturalist" must be a fairly strenuous endeavor, right? Let's take a look:

"The program was established to recognize a superior level of knowledge and commitment among naturalists through a designation of Master Naturalist."

Sounds good to me...

"The OMNP involves a six-module course of study, along with a 30-hour volunteer commitment. Each of the six modules consists of a half-day session that combines class instruction and field observation."

What the duck?! Master-Naturalist status after three days worth of study? What the heck could you possibly learn after three days?

"Participants must complete all six modules."
While the topics covered seem reasonably diverse (no mammals?) my immediate surprise in obtaining this "master" certification after only three days of lesson/study was completely blown out of the water when I saw the dates for the course...

Nearly very Saturday...For half a day.... In freakin Orillia... From the beginning of MAY to the end of JUNE????? What self-respecting Ontario Naturalist has time to spare during May and June?


Ok.. I've settled down again. I'm sure the intentions of this program are nothing but the best. I expect many a young (or older) person will take part, and will be quite excited to add "Master Naturalist" to their resume or profile, but I still can't help but think this will inevitably cloud/confuse the situation for people less familiar with what being a naturalist truly means...

But hey! For now, if you have $200 and 20 hours to spare, you too can become an Ontario Master Naturalist. Check back for my next blog post when notification of the advanced "Super Master Naturalist" program is announced. Rants Disclaimer: I could probably complain about anything.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review Time! - The Amazing World of Flyingfish

Disclaimer! Princeton Publishing provided the copies for review!

Book cover. Oh how excited I was for this one!

Price listed on book - US $12.95
Author - Steve N.G. Howell
Pages - 50
Size - 5"x7" - and less than a cm thick. Much smaller than I was expecting, but of no concern.
Topics covered - What are flyingfish, Where are they, How many kinds are there, size, how they fly, why they fly, colours, identification tips, notes 
Photographs - Numerous! (90+?) And they're all awesome!

The skinny: Ever since the ABA put out a blog post with numerous of Mr. Howell's flyingfish photos, I have been in awe of these little creatures. When word got out about a Princeton book, I had to check it out! 

(an image from the book)

The good: EVERYTHING (I think)...  

The photographs make this book, beyond any shadow of a doubt... They are spectacular... I'm not sure what more there is to say about them, but they are of superb quality, informative, educational and varied to suit just about every possible need.

The text is fun and easy to read... It's also very informative... Heck - I wish the book was longer, larger and had more photos - but that isn't a bad thing! The colour scheme works well and the layout is visually appealing. 


The bad: Two things jump out at me as "bad" - which is a bit of a joke really.... Because the book is awesome, and these are just minor.. But hey! I need to write something.

The cover: The fish used on the cover is pretty awesome, but the quality is lacking... It's somewhat blurry... I can only assume they chose the image because it is a particularly colourful fish, and you can see the eye pretty well... Heck - it's an awesome image, and being blurry isn't the full reason i'm choosing to write about this. I'm not even sure I could pick a better image inside the book to use in that context - but I had to mention it!

The other thing I didn't like was a bit of photo-shopping on page 10. It is specifically stated to be a fake photo-shopped image to illustrate a point, but I think it could have been done better with a real image... That's it!

(part of a page, from the book itself - so awesome!) 

Who should buy it: EVERYONE! (Seriously)

This is such a fun book, and it's only $13... Get it for kids, your grandparents, anyone... Even if you hate nature (or know someone who does) this is the type of book that could ignite the spark for an appreciation of the natural world.

Go get it!

More info here: