Weather fit for a duck

Bruce
Bruce Mactavish
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We have come a long way since the polar grip of the weather that caused Blackout 2014. Conserving energy around the supper hour is an all but forgotten concern.

The warmup and melting of the snow pack over a two-week period was nothing short of incredible. I think we all knew it was possible, but it did not seem likely.

There is one group of birds that especially appreciates the warming up of winter and that is the urban ducks.

It was getting desperate for the St. John’s pond ducks as everything was freezing over. There was no open water in any ponds. Only parts of some of the rivers had open water and even that was disappearing quickly. The thaw came in the 11th hour.  

The ducks closest to meeting their maker must have been the delicate little tufted ducks at Burton’s Pond on the grounds of Memorial University. The aerator used for keeping a small area of water open for the ducks was turned off during the energy conservation measures. Not only were the ducks running out of open water but no one was there to throw them some seed.

A picture taken by Alvan Buckley during the height of the deep freeze showed one tufted duck so frozen over with ice that it was a wonder it could breathe.

Well, those days are over for now. What a sensation it must be for these diving ducks to be released from the grips of winter and given a brand new lease on being normal ducks again. It is great to see the tufted ducks spread out among the various city ponds, full of life and diving away in the shallows for food as if nothing ever happened. It very well could have turned out differently.

Other urban ducks also enjoyed the relief from the deep freeze. Black ducks, mallards and northern pintail were feeding in melt water pools forming in fields as if it was summer again.

The aftermath of the cold weather resulted in a couple of interesting new ducks showing up in St. John’s. These were likely individual ducks frozen out of other places in the province and in their search of open water discovered the concentration of waterfowl in the city and decided to join the St. John’s duck club.

The outsiders were a female hooded merganser that turned up in Quidi Vidi Village. Being a fish eater, it was first in the rapids of the river flowing into the harbour. Later it moved into the saltwater cove and then on to Quidi Vidi Lake as these places opened up. Hooded mergansers are on the rare side on the island of Newfoundland.

Of a similar rarity status, a drake wood duck found Quidi Vidi Lake around the mouth of the Virginia River. Wonder where this splendid duck has been this winter? It should do well in St. John’s for the rest of the winter as soon as it figures out how to accept food handouts from people. It was a little nervous at first, like a feral cat brought into a new home for the first time. Watch for this gaudy duck when you feed the ducks some nice healthy bird seed at the Virginia River mouth.

Another feature of the ice breakup on the city ponds is the appearance of great cormorants. Cormorants are not ducks or loons. This is the bird featured two columns ago scarfing down a Technicolor sculpin in St. John’s harbour.

They are fairly common on the coast of the Avalon Peninsula during the winter. In recent years, for reasons unknown, they have started to come into Quidi Vidi Lake during spring thaws. They like to rest on the ice. Perhaps they also enjoy the fresh water on their feathers. Some of them do a little freshwater fishing.

The cormorants certainly attracted the attention of lake walkers this past weekend. No one missed these unusual birds standing up right on the ice. I sat in my car quietly taking notice of nearly every walker stopping to look and asking their companions about the birds. Cars would pull over to the side of road for a better look. It seemed most people knew they were cormorants, but they were thrown off by their sudden appearance at the lake in winter.

Other warm weather effects

The rare European common snipe found in Ferryland two weekends ago is now unfindable, as other wet places exposed by the melting snow provide endless feeding possibilities for snipe. The snipe will not forget where the cold weather refuge is, should it need it again this winter.

Feeder watchers all around are bemoaning the lack of birds at the feeders since the thaw. The birds are out there in the woods. But keep the seed out as the birds will remember your feeders if the snow comes back. After all we are barely at the halfway point of winter.

I wonder if some birds used the break in the weather after such a trying time changed their minds about trying to overwinter in Newfoundland and actually migrated south. This might apply to robins, flickers and kingfishers.  All these birds seem to be in lower numbers since the cold spell.

On the other hand, the boreal forest specialist pine grosbeak only laughs at what the other birds call bad weather. They were heard in full spring song at several locations this week.  

What will the week ahead bring?

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca,

or by phone at 722-0088.

Organizations: Technicolor

Geographic location: Quidi Vidi Lake, Virginia River, Quidi Vidi Village Island of Newfoundland.Of Avalon Peninsula Ferryland Newfoundland

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