The Ducks are Back in Town

Bufflehead (male)

Bufflehead (male)

By the second half of March our region has seen enough warm days for the local ponds to start opening up again, especially those with water running through them. The Eagleson storm water ponds are the first ponds to show open water in the spring, usually in the middle of March after a few days of temperatures above zero. Other local ponds, such as Bruce Pit, the Moodie Drive quarry, Sarsaparilla Trail, and the Richmond Conservation Area, tend to take longer to open up, likely because they do not have a stream of water flowing through them. I usually can tell when the water of the Eagleson ponds open up by the sudden appearance of chains of Canada Geese flying over my house, but this year I saw my first geese of the year while driving by the ponds on March 14th and saw seven of them flying around, looking for a place to land. When I visited the ponds two days later, there was a bit of open water in the central pond and about 100 Canada Geese and 150 mallards were present.

Once the water starts opening up, migrating birds start pouring in as well, with ducks and blackbirds following closely behind the geese. Male blackbirds arrive before females, and I saw my first Common Grackle on March 17th while driving through my subdivision and my first Red-winged Blackbird that same day at the Eagleson storm water ponds. It was fantastic to hear their calls at the ponds as both species set about finding choice nesting places among the trees and cattail reeds. A single Song Sparrow was singing as well, and I spotted it lurking among the reeds in the southern-most pond.

On March 21st my friend Janet and I headed to Mud Lake to check out the newly returned Wood Ducks and look for other fresh arrivals. To our delight we found seven of them in the channel behind the ridge. Like most ducks, adult males and females are sexually dimorphic, meaning they differ in appearance. Male ducks are usually flashier and more colourful than females, as females do all the egg-incubating and need to blend in with their surroundings. The male Wood Duck is one of the most colourful ducks in the northeast, and is easily identified by his green crest, white facial stripes, chestnut breast, tan body, and bright red eyes.

Wood Duck (male)

Wood Duck (male)

One pair swam up to the ice and clambered up onto the shore, looking for handouts. The ducks and geese here are used to being fed, and are often quite approachable.

Wood Duck (male)

Wood Duck (male)

The female lacks the bold markings of the male, but can be easily distinguished from other female ducks by her white eye-ring, long brownish-gray crest, and iridescent blue wing patch. She also has fine brown and white stripes on her chest and a white belly.

Wood Duck (female)

Wood Duck (female)

There were several mallards present as well as at least two American Black Ducks, both of which overwinter here because the rapids are open all year and people bring them food regularly. Most people hardly give the male mallards a second look because they are so common in Ottawa, but I think the males are quite beautiful with their bright green heads, white collar, and two-toned body. If they were a rare species here, I suspect they’d be one of our most-photographed duck species!

Mallard (male)

Mallard (male)

We checked the channel for mergansers and other diving ducks, but only the usual Common Goldeneyes were present. These ducks are winter residents, appearing on the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers in the fall and staying until April. Unlike the mallards and Wood Ducks, these ducks find food by diving below the water’s surface to feed on aquatic invertebrates, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and some aquatic vegetation. The male has a bright green head with a white circular cheek patch and a white body with black markings, while the female has a brown head, no cheek patch, and a gray body. A male was swimming close to shore, and I managed to get a photo of him before he dived below the surface. His head was brown, but his bill was entirely gray and the beginnings of a white patch on the face was just starting to show, so I’m guessing this is a young male in his first winter. Females usually have orange tip to the bill and no white on the face at all.

Common Goldeneye (immature male)

Common Goldeneye (first winter male)

I was also happy to see my first muskrat of the year on the ice at Britannia Point. They are often seen swimming in the lake in the warmer months, but the lake was still frozen on our visit.

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Muskrat

Muskrat

With the water opening up, I started visiting the Eagleson ponds more often. Both Hooded and Common Mergansers have been present regularly, and on April 2nd I spotted an even more unusual species: a male and female Blue-winged Teal! I missed them on my first look, but when a couple of photographers came up and aimed their cameras at the shore of the small circular pond I took a closer look. The ducks were tucked up against the vegetation, and if it hadn’t been for the white flank of the male shining in the sun I wouldn’t have noticed him or the female next to him! The Blue-winged Teal is one of our smallest ducks, and is usually one of the last to head north in the spring. This pair was early, and as such eBird noted it as “rare” on my checklist.

Blue-winged Teal (male)

Blue-winged Teal (male)

The male has a white crescent on an otherwise gray head, while the female looks very similar to the female mallard – except for the large black bill. Both have a powder-blue wing patch bordered with green, visible in this photo.

I was also excited to see my first Great Egret and Double-crested Cormorant of the year at the ponds the same day; while neither species breeds here, they can be found here on almost every visit in the warmer months due to the plentiful fish in the ponds.

On April 4th I headed over to Andrew Haydon Park with my sister-in-law to see if the river was opening up. I’d seen a report of a few Buffleheads there; this small diving duck is one of the first to return when the western bay starts opening up. To my disappointment both ponds and the Ottawa River were still completely frozen, with only a small amount of water open along the shore and at the creek mouth. However, when I saw a male and female Bufflehead diving in the water right next to the bridge I was thrilled, as I rarely see these pretty ducks so close to the shore. While the male appears to be a dapper black and white from a distance or on dark, overcast days, they actually have subtle hues of blue, green and purple on the face. As I’ve never seen a male so close to shore before, this is the first time I’ve ever captured these iridescent colours on camera!

Bufflehead (male)

Bufflehead (male)

Buffleheads are closely related to the Hooded Merganser and two goldeneye species, all of which nest in tree cavities near small ponds or lakes. The Bufflehead is the smallest of these four species, and the female usually lays her eggs in old nest cavities, especially those of Northern Flickers and Pileated Woodpeckers. They breed across Canada in the Boreal Forest, and while they are most numerous in the west, there are estimated to be about 13,500 pairs in Ontario.

Bufflehead (male)

Bufflehead (male)

The female was diving right next to the male, and was also easy to capture. Her body is covered in feathers in various shades of gray, and there is a large white cheek patch on her brown head. Buffleheads are different from other ducks in that they remain with the same mate for years.

Bufflehead (female)

Bufflehead (female)

There weren’t many other migrants at Andrew Haydon Park yet, so we didn’t stay long. A groundhog on the lawn and a muskrat swimming in the creek were also nice to see, but the Buffleheads were the stars of the day.

It was fantastic to see the ice starting to melt and different duck species stopping over on their way to their breeding grounds. The beginning of migration is one of my favourite times of year; once the ice all melts and the temperature warms up, the ducks are followed by herons, sparrows, Northern Flickers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Eastern Phoebes, Golden-crowned Kinglets and Winter Wrens. It’s a wonderful time to get outdoors, check the local ponds and trails, and see what’s out there!

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