Ducks and geese as we know need water to survive. The Canadian winter freezes most fresh water and much of the saltwater in this country.
Waterfowl instinctively know this is coming, so they migrate to a location with guaranteed open water and a suitable food supply for the winter.
This past weekend, sea ducks were on the move. Small flocks of scoters and long-tailed ducks were flying around Cape Race and heading southwest along the shoreline. Other groups of sea ducks were resting on the water here and there. At nearby Cripple Cove, a mixed congregation of sea ducks was on the water feeding. It included 120 white-winged scoters, 25 surf scoters, eight black scoters, five common eiders, 20 long-tailed ducks and one splendid drake harlequin duck.
This is a favourite location for scoters all through the year. It was a great outdoor classroom for studying the differences and similarities of these sea ducks all together in one flock. While some scoters and many long-tailed ducks over winter in Newfoundland coastal waters, much larger numbers winter off the east coast of the United States.
Other water birds were also observed in the Cape Race area.
Scattered red-throated loons were flying strongly to the southwest. At The Drook, the first three red-necked grebes of the fall looked settled in for the winter along with an impressive flock of 35 common loons. The increase in sea ducks, loons and grebes around the coast is a classic sign of late fall.
Meanwhile, there was a lingering presence of summer off Cape Race with a swarm of shearwaters, gannets, razorbills and several whales feeding on some kind of bait fish a kilometre off shore. They will all be gone within a few weeks.
On land, the freshwater ducks are also in full migration. They migrate a little ahead of the salt water ducks because the fresh water freezes sooner.
Freshwater ducks are easiest to observe within the boundaries of urban areas where they have discovered a refuge from hunters. This is particularly obvious in the St. John’s area, around Conception Bay and Clarenville.
As the fall season progresses, the ducks that overwinter within these artificial waterfowl retreats arrive in greater numbers. The most distinguished St. John’s winter duck is the tufted ducks that come to the city all the way from nesting grounds in Iceland.
Numbers increase a little every winter. Last year about 55 overwintered on city ponds. There is almost that many in town already. Somehow word spreads among the ducks about safe places to go.
Two kinds of wigeons, one from North American and the other from Iceland, are also arriving. It is not unusual to see a wigeon on the Avalon Peninsula outside of the urban waterfowl refuge zones, but within these select areas there are now dozens of wigeons.
They are grazing unconcerned on the grass of golf courses and other large lawns.
During migration, a few waterfowl are prone to wander and end up outside of their normal range. In the last week, a drake hooded merganser and a bufflehead in St. John’s were a little east of their normal range. Unfortunately, both of these fine ducks were present for just one day.
A very rare pink-footed goose from Greenland was present for just one day in a town pond in Bonavista two weeks ago. It was photographed by a tourist before disappearing. As inland ponds start freezing up and freshwater waterfowl get displaced from over the land, we keep a careful eye on the city ponds for new and sometimes unusual arrivals.
Mild southwest winds carried a few birds off course to the Avalon last weekend.
A white-eyed vireo near Cape Race was a pleasant surprise for three birders. Security guards at the St. John’s dry dock discovered an odd bird sitting on an old wharf. It turned out to be a great blue heron. It looked tired and bedraggled as if just having survived a long flight.
On the same day, Adele Walsh noticed a white crane in a pond behind her house off Logy Bay Road that turned out to be a great egret, a southern cousin of the great blue heron.
People are reporting large numbers of robins, purple finches and a few cedar waxwings feeding on the brilliant crop of dogberries. Even though woodland birds are living happily in the woods on the abundance of wild food crop, it is still worth having a bird feeder going.
Enjoy the birds.
Bruce Mactavish is an environmental
consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org,
or by phone at 722-0088.