Last week a first-year male Harlequin Duck was discovered on the Ottawa River in the channel between Bate Island and the Gatineau shore. While this is not the first time a Harlequin Duck has been seen in the Ottawa area, it is only the second one to appear here since I started birding in 2006. I got my “lifer” Harlequin Duck on December 22, 2007 in the exact same location, a female. Others have wintered along the rapids at Strathcona Park in previous years, including a female which over-wintered there for five years straight beginning in 2000. Harlequin Ducks are primarily found in fast-moving water, breeding on fast-flowing mountain streams in British Columbia and Labrador, and wintering along rocky coastlines or turbulent rivers. The rapids near Bate Island and at Strathcona Park do not freeze in the winter, making it an attractive spot for many different ducks, including Harlequins, in the winter.
I found the Harlequin Duck rather easily in the churning waves of the river, though keeping it in sight proved more difficult. It was a dark bird with a small bill and the diagnostic patches of white at the base of the bill and behind the eye. This bird also had a white “spur” extending from the breast up to the shoulder and another short, thin white line on the head near the neck, making it a male rather than a female. He was actively diving in the river with some Common Goldeneyes, often swimming against the current when it threatened to carry him too far downstream. I was surprised at how quickly he was able to swim upstream, given how fast the water was moving. This was quite different from the Common Goldeneyes that had to fly back upstream to the top of the rapids.
I checked Andrew Haydon Park and Ottawa Beach for gulls, hoping to find some of the Glaucous and Iceland Gulls that had been reported, to no avail. From there I drove to the Lime Kiln Trail, hoping that I might find the Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Shrike or Black-backed Woodpecker that were around on my last visit. I found only one of the three, but it was the one that I wanted most to see.
As usual, there were lots of Hairy Woodpeckers working in the burn site. I also saw a single Downy Woodpecker and a group of chickadees looking for handouts. For a while I followed a single set of coyote tracks that looked fresh, coming across some deer tracks that were not-so-fresh. Unusual for this time of year, I found not one but two spiders; one dangling from a web above me and another walking on the snow-covered ground. I picked the spider up off the ground and placed it in the root system of a tree that fallen over. How they have managed to survive in the -4°C weather is unknown to me.
It took me a while to find one of the Black-backed Woodpeckers; the female was working on a tree at the edge of the fire break. I watched her for a while before a Hairy Woodpecker flew in and landed on the same tree, causing her to leave.
She flew across the fire break, deeper into the burn site, and I lost her while attempting to follow. I turned around and went back toward the trail, and by the time I found my way around groups of fallen trees I stumbled across her again. This time she was working on a tree close to the main trail next to a stand of cedars. There were no Hairy Woodpeckers around to chase her off, and even better, she was only about six feet above the ground!
I spent some time watching and photographing her, thrilled that I was able to get within six feet of her while she was still at eye level. She hitched her way down lower and lower on the tree trunk, so I decided to shoot some video of her as well. This one is short, only about 30 seconds, but near the end it seems that she found some larvae beneath the bark; you can see her long tongue shoot out of the hole she had drilled before she disappears around the trunk.
A slightly longer video, with more of her visible. Here you can see a flash of the white belly and her three toes; this species used to be called the Arctic Three-toed Woodpecker.
It was a definitely a great morning for birding, even if the sun didn’t come out as promised and I didn’t find more than two birds for my winter list!