Waterfowl Watching

Hooded Merganser
November 2006

If you want to go waterfowl watching in Ottawa, October is the month to do it. Our region is a major staging area for waterfowl each fall, and hundreds of thousands of birds consisting of more than 30 species can be found on local ponds, sewage lagoons, wetlands and major rivers.

The best place in Ottawa to see the greatest variety is the stretch of the Ottawa River known as Lac Deschênes. Located between Deschênes Rapids to the east and Innis Point (Ontario) and Baie Alexandria (Québec) to the west, Lac Deschênes is located wholly within the Ottawa River and reaches about three kilometres at its widest point. Because it is one of the larger bodies of water in the region, and because significant numbers of water birds stop here to rest and refuel during spring and fall migration, Lac Deschênes is recognized as a globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA). It isn’t surprising that the two life birds I got this month are both water birds, and that the most unexpected of the two was found on Lac Deschênes.

Author’s Note – Because waterfowl (especially the diving ducks) spend so much time out in the middle of the rivers and ponds, I find them a particularly tough group to photograph. As such, all photos in this post are old photos from occasions when I was lucky enough to find them on smaller bodies of water or close to shore.

Green-winged Teal
December 2009

Andrew Haydon Park is one of the easiest places to access Lac Deschênes and one of the best spots for waterfowl viewing, but each time I’ve visited it this fall I’ve been disappointed. Canada Geese usually congregate here in the thousands, and a few Brant, Cackling Geese or Snow Geese may sometimes be found with them. Each time I’ve stopped by, however, the geese had already left the park, probably to feed in the fields to the south. The marsh at the western end of Andrew Haydon Park is a reliable spot for Green-winged and Blue-winged Teals during the fall, however, each time I’ve visited the marsh this month I’ve only found a handful of Green-winged Teals. Blue-winged Teals are the first waterfowl to depart, and aren’t usually seen after mid-October.

The marsh at Andrew Haydon Park is a prime spot to see Blue- and Green-winged Teals, geese, Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons

The fountain in one of the man-made ponds was still running and people were sailing remote-controlled boats on one of the days that I visited, so I didn’t see anything except for a few Canada Geese and mallards on the water. Water levels were high, too, which meant there were no muddy edges to provide shorebirds and dabbling ducks a place to feed.

Fountain at Andrew Haydon Park

Northern Pintail
November 2009

The waterfowl viewing at Shirley’s Bay, on the other hand, has been stellar. I counted 20 species there during the second weekend of October, and had two “hat-tricks”: all three scoters and all three (common) grebes. If I’d have found a Common Merganser there, I would have had a hat-trick of mergansers, too. (My companion that day, David Britton, did see a Common Merganser earlier that day at Britannia and managed to get three hat-tricks!) Even so, it was great to see the male Hooded Mergansers back in their crisp breeding plumage and four female Red-breasted Mergansers on the river. Other notable species included at least one Common Goldeneye, a diving duck that spends the winter in Ottawa on the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers; my first Northern Pintails of the fall; two Gadwall; four Northern Shovelers; one Pied-billed Grebe; and about 20 Wood Ducks.

Red-breasted Merganser
November 2011

On the dyke, a Field Sparrow was a nice surprise, and in the woods David and I heard a Fox Sparrow singing (October is the best time to see migrating sparrows as well). We saw a Fox Sparrow, a few White-throated Sparrows, two dozen robins and one Hermit Thrush foraging on the leaf-covered trail. Both kinglets and a Garter Snake were present as well.

Last Garter Snake of the Season?

On October 16th a Western Grebe was discovered on Lac Deschênes, and it stayed long enough for me to see him from the Quebec side during the third weekend of October. Western Grebes aren’t rare in their range, but they breed no further east than Manitoba and spend the winter on the Pacific coast. Its large size, bright white throat, and long yellow bill were distinctive compared to a nearby Red-necked Grebe; this may be the same individual that spent a few days on Lac Deschênes last fall. This life bird was thrilling since I wasn’t able to find one in Alberta last July. A Bald Eagle perching on a rock in the middle of the river was also a great find.

American Wigeon
October 2010

My second lifer was much more satisfying, as it was a nemesis bird I’ve been trying to find for a few years now. The Moodie Drive quarry pond is probably the second best spot to find waterfowl in the west end, particularly the Ruddy Ducks which remain as long as the water is open. I was watching a group of shorebirds (3 Greater and 1 Lesser Yellowlegs) on the spit through my scope when a line of Canada Geese swam out from behind the reeds in front of them. I was still watching through the scope when a Greater White-Fronted Goose swam out at the end of the line! I knew what it was instantly, with its distinctive orange bill, gray-brown body and white patch at the base of its bill, and I continued watching it through the scope until the whole group took to the air and flew west. These geese are reported every year in Ottawa, but they show up sporadically, and never more than a handful each time (seven birds is the highest number seen in a single flock). I’d heard one had been seen at the quarry pond each evening but didn’t think it would swim out in front of me. Now all I need to do is find one to photograph!

Common Goldeneye
March 2009

During the third weekend of October, a female Tufted Duck showed up at Shirley’s Bay with a large group of scaup; I tried twice to see this rarity but had no luck either time due to the distance of the flock and difficult viewing conditions. Deb and I found some White-winged Scoters inside the bay, about a dozen Gadwall, several American Wigeon, and our first American Tree Sparrows of the season instead. We had better luck at the Moodie Drive quarry pond instead where we tallied three goose species: Canada, Snow and Ross’s. The Snow Geese were resting along the edge of the spit close to a group of four or five Greater Yellowlegs, while the Ross’s Goose was swimming much further out with the Canada Geese. A few Ruddy Ducks, Great Black-backed Gulls, Hooded Mergansers and Common Mergansers were present as well.

So far I’ve seen 27 waterfowl species this month. I’m still missing a few common species such as Brant, Cackling Goose, Common Loon, Long-tailed Duck and Redhead, which can all be seen at Lac Deschênes; hopefully the weekend won’t be as wet as the forecast says and I will be able to get out and spend some time on the river.

September 2010


11 thoughts on “Waterfowl Watching

  1. Nice entry Gillian! But I believe that last duck (Sept. 2010) is an imm. Canvasback. The head shape and bill length and shape struck me straight away, as did the pale grey back. Let me know if you think otherwise!

    • Hi Chris! This was one of the two Aythya ducks which spent over a week on the ponds at Andrew Haydon Park in the fall of 2010. More pictures can be found on my original blog post (still at LiveJournal). I thought it had been accepted that they were both Redheads. It would be cool if one was a Canvasback, though!

  2. I like the phrase “nemesis bird” 😀 One of mine is Cackling Goose. Don’t have it yet. Repeatedly I’ve posted “is this one?” photos to BirdForum or sent them to Chris Lewis, only to be told it’s yet another lesser Canada Goose. (Now I’m to the point I can burst my own bubble without help, because I’ve realized Cackling’s bill is *so* stubby, it’s pretty much unmistakable.)

    Have you seen Snow Buntings at Shirley’s Bay? I’ve heard they’ve been around lately near the boat launch.

    Nice shot of the teal!

    • Hi Suzanne! I need Cackling for the year, too. I usually get them at AHP, Dick Bell, or near the Britannia Pier but every time I’ve been lately there haven’t been many geese around. Yes, I had the same problem with them too, but then when you see one you KNOW it’s a Cackler. They are just so small, with little necks and stubby bills.

      Haven’t seen the Snow Buntings at Shirley’s Bay. I was hoping to go look for the Tufted Duck again today, but the weather is too yucky. So I stayed home to work on my blog.

    • Looking at this photo and the others in your original blog post, I’m torn…the bill doesn’t look *quite* as long as, say, this, and the forehead looks steeper…but her bill does look all dark like a Canvasback’s instead of being bluish with a dark tip. And it is rather long. I wonder if a hybrid is possible?

      Might be worth posting some pix to BirdForum and seeing what they think.

  3. Hi Gillian & Suzanne! Gillian, we had a Fb discussion about this bird, with input from others. Additional photos and more “context” re: the same bird clearly indicated… Redhead! No hybrid, just imm. or non-breeding plumage. One photo, of one bird, in one pose, in one type of lighting can be….a fooler! 🙂

    • Good to know the bill can be that color on a Redhead…my field guide doesn’t show it. I think the feature that most made me doubt the duck as a Canvasback (a pure one at least) was the profile…it just didn’t seem sloping enough.

      I’d be curious to view the discussion thread, is it open to the public?

      On another subject, I wonder what made people determine that the Tufted Duck is pure Tufted Duck? I’ve looked at photos and they all show a pronounced scaup-like white patch at the base of the bill, which Tufted is not supposed to have. I suppose it must be a known plumage variation?

  4. Gilian, I made a funny discovery…I looked at the photo again, of the duck in question (above), but on a different computer screen….and the shape of the head looked quite different, i.e. less sloping! My desktop screen is 18″ wide X 9″ tall, and it DOES tend to make some images appear more elongated (and some people look fatter ;-), esp. when I watch DVDs. Also funny…your other duck photos look just fine. So, maybe a combination of lighting & angle on the bird + my computer screen? Maybe it has some other Aythya genes in it too, who knows? Waterfowl are notorious for cross-gender shopping.

    Re: the Tufted Duck: I have heard from a number of different people, all say they have this reference or that (I have quite a few bird ID guides, but only a couple of European ones) and apparently the white on the face CAN be quite extensive and even Scaup-like. However, it remains to be seen what the “experts” decide, after all the comments are in. And then there’s the cross-gender shopping factor…maybe even one of its GRANDPARENTS was a Scaup? We’ll probably never know for sure. If the expert consensus is Tufted, I’ll call it a Tufted!

    • Thanks Chris! Yeah, sometimes the right monitor can make all the difference…as can the grandparents ;). Have you heard whether the Tufted Duck and Western Grebe are still around?

  5. Yikes! Just realized I wrote “cross-gender” shopping :-0 —I MEANT “cross-species” !!! Haven’t heard anything about the duck for a week (not since 23 October), but the Western Grebe was seen by Nick yesterday (28 October), but it was ABOVE Deschenes rapids, out on Britannia Bay. He said the WEGR was quite far out from where he was looking, from the Quebec side. Also, several RNGR, closer to the Quebec shore.

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