Waterfowl watching

The first Saturday of November was a crisp, beautiful sunny day so I headed back up to the Ottawa River to check out the waterfowl. My first stop was Shirley’s Bay where the woods proved to be extremely quiet. Only a couple of robins, chickadees, and a Hairy Woodpecker were present, making me long for the mid-September mornings when the trees were filled with migrating warblers, vireos, flycatchers and thrushes.

The dyke was more productive. Although the Bald Eagles were absent, at least a thousand Canada Geese filled the bay. When they eventually flew off, a few Green-winged Teals, mallards, and at least 50 Northern Shovelers – the most I have ever seen before! – remained.

The deeper waters beyond the grassy point belonged to the diving species. Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneyes, about 20 Hooded Mergansers, and two Red-breasted Mergansers were sleeping or actively diving for food in the water on both sides of the dyke. A long line of at least 200 scaup visible from the boat launch had become restless, flying over the dyke in huge groups. What was amazing was that these groups were arrayed in a compact, organized and synchronized formation which looked, from below, like a multitude of tiny planes performing in an air show. Even more amazing was the sound of so many wings beating together.

Scaup

I found a couple of American Tree Sparrows foraging along the dyke, and was surprised to see a group of about eight Gadwall in the bay beyond the first island. These dabbling ducks, although not the most brilliantly coloured, were a pleasure to see.

From there I drove over to Andrew Hayden Park to check out the birds in the ponds. I didn’t spend much time scanning the river, only coming up with three Horned Grebes and two Red-necked Grebes, but instead focused my attention on the two Brant, dozens of Lesser Scaup, and four Green-winged Teals in the western pond.

Lesser Scaup

The two Brant swam away from me as soon as I arrived, but a couple of scaup were diving near the shore. One even popped up out of the water close to where I was standing. It is always neat to see these birds up close, for they normally spend their time out on the river or in the middle of large quarry ponds where they are much less accessible.

Lesser Scaup

There were a lot of Canada Geese on the pond, too, so I spent some time scanning the flock for Cackling Geese. I found a couple of candidates, but a lot of the geese seemed to be swimming with their necks scrunched up so I couldn’t be sure.

Canada Geese

I took a walk around the pond and discovered the two Brant dozing on the grass. These two juveniles have been here for several days now, and I was happy to get some pictures of them in the sunshine.

Brant

While photographing the Brant I noticed this chipmunk scampering about in the grass.

Eastern Chipmunk

I walked over to the eastern pond, where I found this Red-breasted Merganser diving in the small area between the wooden stage and the northern shore. It amazed me to see her so close to the shore, for these large ducks prefer to feed in the Ottawa River, which is where I usually see them. It also amazed me that she was so tolerant of my presence. I crept closer to the water’s edge each time she went under, and she didn’t high-tail it out of there when she saw me right next to her like most ducks do.

Red-breasted Merganser

Although differentiating between female Common and Red-breasted Mergansers used to be tough at first, there are a few key points which are noticeable on this bird. First, the eyes are bright red. Female Common Mergansers have eyes that are darker and browner. Second, the colours under the chin, on the neck and the front of the breast all blend in together. Common Mergansers have a white patch on the chin, a brown head, and a neck that is half brown and half gray with a sharp, neat line separating the two colours. Finally, these two ladies sport subtly different hairdos. The Common Merganser has a bushy head, while the Red-breasted Merganser has two noticeable spikes in its crest.

Red-breasted Merganser with fish

I finished my walk around the ponds and returned to the western pond, where I spent some time photographing the scaup. Although differentiating between Greater Scaup and Lesser Scaup used to be impossible at first, now it is just…okay, well it’s still next to impossible for me. Experienced birders talk about head shape, but this is something I have a difficult time seeing in the field. Lesser Scaup have taller, narrower heads with a more vertical corner at the rear of the crown, while Greater Scaup have a more rounded head and the peak of the head is farther forward. The Sibley’s field guide has excellent drawings of the head shape of the two scaup species in different circumstances, from actively diving, to relaxed to sleeping. Unfortunately, real-life scaup rarely match any of these drawings. Fortunately, it helps to know that the Lesser Scaup is the most likely species to inhabit small ponds such as the ones at Andrew Haydon Park.

Lesser Scaup (in a position not mentioned in Sibley’s)

The Green-winged Teals were foraging along the water’s edge, and I caught the male in midst of a wing stretch. Note how he stretches his leg at the same time.

Male Green-winged Teal

There seem to be lots of these small dabbling ducks around this fall, but none as close or as accessible as the ones at Andrew Haydon. Two females were busy chowing down on the muck at the water’s edge.

Female Green-winged Teals

The two Brant had also decided it was time to eat, and were munching on the grass next to the path. They seemed completely oblivious to me and the two other photographers taking their picture.

Brant

It was fantastic to see so many neat ducks today and to finally get some decent photos of some of them. Too often these days the birds I see are too far away to photograph (such as the Gadwall earlier this morning or the grebes out on the river) so it was a nice change of pace to spend some time photographing the teals, the scaup, the merganser and the two juvenile Brant geese at Andrew Haydon Park.

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