Two Baldpates and A Bufflehead

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

December is here, and this morning I headed over to Mud Lake to get some more practice with my new Nikon Coolpix P610. Even though the winter birding season officially started five days ago, it still feels like fall, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Fortunately the daytime temperature has remained above 0°C the past couple of days; although the nights have been cold, neither the Ottawa River nor the large ponds have frozen over yet. We haven’t had any snow yet, either, so I was hoping to find either some late-lingering migrants (Hermit Thrush being the most likely, though I also would accept Song Sparrow, Belted Kingfisher, or Northern Flicker), some irruptive winter species (Bohemian Waxwings, Common Redpolls or Pine Grosbeaks would have been awesome), or something really cool like a Northern Mockingbird or a Townsend’s Solitaire. If there’s one spot in Ottawa where you can count on finding something unseasonal or out-of-range from time to time, it’s Mud Lake – and there are plenty of berries there for any winter wanderers.

I started my visit with a stop along Cassels Street where I scanned the lake for waterfowl. Four Hooded Mergansers were diving in the middle of the lake, and about 50 or 60 Canada Geese were swimming further out. A couple of mallards and American Black Ducks were swimming close to the shore, and when the black ducks saw me they swam over to the road and then walked right up to me. I threw some sunflower seeds and peanuts onto the ground and they just lapped them up. This, of course, attracted the chickadees so I spent some time feeding them, too.

From there I went up to the ridge where I was hoping to see the White-throated Sparrows again. They weren’t around, but a large flock of finches – both House Finches and American Goldfinches – were present eating berries. A few of the House Finches seemed interested when I started feeding the chickadees, flying in closer, but when I threw some seed on the ground they ignored it. The two American Black Ducks must have been watching me, for when I turned around, there they were scrambling up the slope to join the chickadees feeding on the ground!

From there I headed toward the point, running into a photographer who said it was pretty quiet. I told him that that was okay, as I enjoy feeding the birds regardless of what else is around – and so far there were plenty of birds hoping to be fed! As I walked across the lawn I noticed that the construction site had completely disappeared – the gravel parking area was gone, the chain-link fence was gone, the plastic orange fence was gone, and the huge weedy pile of debris so beloved by the Song Sparrows was gone. Someone had put down fresh sod, making it look just like the lawn I remembered from a few years ago. The Canada Geese were also enjoying the sod, though not in a way the City would approve of.

At Britannia Point I found 8 Common Goldeneyes diving in the rushing river at the bottom of the rapids, 7 swimming in the quieter waters of the bay, and a small duck sitting on a rock close to the shore. I was happily surprised to identify it as a female Bufflehead, a species I usually only see diving far out in the middle of the river. I was able to get some great photos with my new Nikon Coolpix – the 60x zoom continues to impress me!

Bufflehead (Female)

Bufflehead (Female)

While I was photographing the Bufflehead I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and was thrilled when a Common Loon surfaced from a dive. This is the first one of the fall for me, and only my second one of the year. The scalloped appearance of its back indicates it is a juvenile.

Common Loon

Common Loon

I heard a Common Raven calling as I proceeded along the trail on the eastern side of the lake, but didn’t see anything of interest until I reached the woods at the southeastern corner of the conservation area. There I found a couple of Northern Cardinals, a White-breasted Nuthatch, a Brown Creeper, at least four American Robins, and several goldfinches in the same area.

American Robin

American Robin

Several crows were flying about and calling noisily, clearly unhappy about something. Although I spent some time scanning the trees for a hawk or an owl perching nearby, I didn’t see anything to draw their ire. Then I happened to glance up at the sky where I saw a huge dark bird soaring high above the conservation area. I thought it was a raven at first, but a look through the binoculars confirmed it as a juvenile Bald Eagle! Some crows were harassing it, and the huge size of the eagle as well as the altitude made the crows look no bigger than Red-winged Blackbirds harassing a Turkey Vulture!

On the south side of the conservation area I heard a couple of juncos in the thickets, and heard what might have been Common Redpolls flying over. I took a side trail to get to the water, where I scanned the pond for more water birds. The small bays close to the shore had a thin skin of ice covering them, but the middle of the lake was completely open. I saw the four Hooded Mergansers, several Canada Geese, and a large flock of gulls. One large, pink-legged juvenile Herring Gull stood out from the smaller Ring-billed Gulls.

Herring Gull (juvenile) with Ring-billed Gulls

Herring Gull (juvenile) with Ring-billed Gulls

When I reached the bridge I wasn’t surprised to see about a dozen mallards – including two Mallard/Black Duck hybrids – in the small bay, but I was surprised to see two smaller ducks swimming toward the bridge. The two ducks were American Wigeon, male and female, likely the same ones that I had seen two weeks ago. I looked around for the other pair but did not see them. I was delighted when they swam within a few feet of the bridge, allowing stunning views while they fed on vegetation growing under the water’s surface.

American Wigeon (male)

American Wigeon (male)

Males are quite distinctive, with a green stripe on the face curving back from the eye and a white patch running from the top of the bill and back over the crown. The American Wigeon used to be known as a “baldpate” because the white patch on its head is said to resemble a bald man’s head. Unlike the Bald Eagle, whose white head feathers are obvious, the white patch on the wigeon’s forehead really does appear featherless, as the feathers that cover the area are very fine.

American Wigeon (male)

American Wigeon (male)

Like the other female dabbling ducks in our region, the female American Wigeon appears plain at first glance but has a subtle beauty when seen up close. She has a brownish-gray head, a plain face, and warm reddish-brown flanks. The bill of both sexes is bluish-gray with a black tip.

American Wigeon (male and female)

American Wigeon (male and female)

The American Wigeon breeds on shallow lakes and marshy sloughs across northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Alaska, and the Northwest Territories, preferring bodies of water that are surrounded by dry, sedge-lined meadows. The only dabbling duck that nests farther north than the American Wigeon is the Northern Pintail. It is the dabbling duck most likely to be found grazing on vegetation in fields, though I have never seen one away from water. In the fall they spread throughout the continent as they migrate south, overwintering in the southern United States and along the eastern seaboard. Many overwinter in Ontario, though seldom in Ottawa; the only time I can remember seeing a wigeon in the winter was the female at Watson’s Mill in Manotick back in February 2011.

American Wigeon (female)

American Wigeon (female)

The two wigeon spent some time foraging near the bridge before swimming off to the side. The male began preening, then settled in for a nap.

American Wigeon (male)

American Wigeon (male)

Once he settled in, I crept a little closer to take this photo of him with his bill tucked into his back feathers. Again I was impressed by the feather detail captured by my camera; click to enlarge.

American Wigeon

American Wigeon (male)

Although I was hoping the female American Wigeon would join the male close to the shore, she was more interested in feeding in the deeper water. I heard a Pine Siskin fly over while I was waiting, but when it became clear she had no intention of joining the male I decided to leave. I headed west along the south shore and came across a small group of people watching something in the lake. There I saw a pair of beavers busy foraging for food, diving beneath the thin skin of ice and emerging with some green vegetation in their mouths.

Beaver

Beaver

The ice was thin enough that they were easily able to break through it when they emerged. Here you can see a couple pieces still clinging to the beaver’s head (click to enlarge):

Beaver breaking through ice

Beaver breaking through ice

In the warmer months, the beaver’s diet is chiefly herbaceous. Their preferred food includes grasses, herbs, the leaves of woody plants, fruits, and aquatic plants such as the roots and stems of pond lilies and cattails. Once the water freezes over in winter, beavers shift their diet to what aquatic plants they can find beneath the ice as well as the tree bark from the stores they have gathered in the warmer months. The large cache of sticks is stored underwater and brought into the feeding chamber of the lodge when the beavers need to eat.

Beaver

Beaver

It has been a long time since I’ve seen the beavers at Mud Lake, so I was thrilled to watch them work for several minutes. With daylight decreasing rapidly this time of year they were no doubt taking advantage of the mild December morning to get out of the lodge and continue their winter preparations.

I continued on my way, although when I noticed that the Hooded Mergansers were diving close to the western shore I took a short side trail to see if they were worth photographing with my new camera. They were a fair distance out, and while I wouldn’t have bothered photographing them with my old camera, the new one captured them quite well.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

I even managed to get a photo of the female after she had caught a fish!

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

By the time I was finished my walk I had spent just over three hours at Mud Lake and the temperature had risen to 7°C. Although I didn’t find anything spectacular, I ended up with a total of 25 species, which is an impressive number for a day in December! The juvenile Bald Eagle flying over and the two beavers diving beneath the ice were definitely highlights of the day, though I was equally happy to see all of the waterfowl still hanging around – the Bufflehead in particular was a great bird to see so close to the shore. I was really pleased with the results of my new camera, too. Outings like this make it hard to believe that migration is almost over and winter is on its way.

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