Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bulletin #102 – Waterfowl and Gulls of Niagara area

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
February 14, 2010

Bulletin #102 – Waterfowl and Gulls of Niagara area

Hello friends,

Happy Valentine's Day!

I had a quick weekend trip to southern Ontario last weekend and managed to get a days birding in with a Toronto area guide - Geoff Carpentier. Geoff leads trips in Ontario and around the world including Antarctica, Borneo, Ecuador etc. He wrote a book last year called 'Antarctica - First Journey The Traveller's Resource Guide'. His web site is here.

We looked for birds along the Niagara River and in the Burlington ON harbor.

The Niagara River is a famous location for wintering gulls and waterfowl. It was very cold 10-20 degrees F, but fortunately not too windy. Although I grew up in Canada, this was my first time to do winter birding.

Obviously at those temperatures, most smaller ponds and rivers are frozen completely over. Thus any open water draws the birds. The Niagara River is a fast flowing river, both above and below the falls and was almost ice free. Although in some areas, there was ice along the shore. The Ontario birding hotline had listed 3 gull species that I wanted to see and photograph. I did see all 3 of them and 2 were lifers (Little Gull and Iceland Gull). The third was Glaucous Gull. Other gull species we found were Herring, Ring-billed, Thayer's and Greater Black-backed.

Here are 2 photos of the 1st winter Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus). This is a large (27") white winged gull. Notice the primary feathers are white at the tips. This juvenile bird has a little brown speckling and bicolored bill. It breeds in the high arctic and winters along the Pacific coast to Washington state and along the Atlantic coast to Virginia as well as the Great Lakes. It is an occasional winter visitor to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) is a medium sized (22") gull that exists in 2 slightly different forms. The more common in North America is the Kumlien's subspecies that is grayer. It also has white wing tips. This photo was taken from about 100 yards away. the bird was at the bottom of a deep gorge below the hydro-electric dam.

The pure Iceland Gull is much whiter. One was flying back and forth below the dam as well. You can see the white wing tips. Sibley doesn't even show this form in his book. He says they only rarely show up in North America.

The Little Gull (Larus minutus) is the smallest gull in the world at 11" in length. The breeding range is the interior of Europe and Asia (Scandanavia, Russia and China) They are uncommon in winter in North America (along east coast and Great Lakes). They often associate with Bonaparte's Gulls. However, they are easy to ID when flying as they have black underwings. This distinctive field mark can allow one to find this bird at a long distance.. There was only a single bird, and he was too far away for a photograph, but I was excited to see it for my lifer.

There was a great profusion of waterfowl in the open water areas. Offshore in Lake Ontario were all 3 species of Scoters, King Eider, and Common Goldeneye, but they were too far away to photograph. Geoff saw a Black Scoter in the scope which would be a lifer for me, but I could never really see the bird as the cold wind in my face caused my eyes to water too much.

Along the Niagara River were Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, and many ducks including Mallard, Black, Bufflehead, Ring-necked, Redhead, Canvasback, Long-tailed and Common and Hooded Mergansers.

The male and female Canvasback (Aythya valsineria) are distinctive. They have sloped foreheads that leads straight into the black bills. The only bird one might confuse the male with is the male Redhead. However, the back is almost white on a Canvasback and gray on the Redhead. The head is red and round on the Redhead rather than reddish brown. The Redhead has a blue bill.

Here are the male and female Canvasback.

For comparison, here are the male and female Redhead.

The Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus ) is very stunning with its crest. The males crest has a large white patch and he can raise and lower it to show varying amounts of white. The male is otherwise black and white with brown belly. The female is brown with a bushy reddish crest.

The first photo shows 2 males with a female between. One male has his crest raised and the other lowered. The second photo shows another pair.

Many of the waterfowl were standing or lying on the ice beside the patches of open water. Here is a male American Black Duck (Anas rubripes). Both sexes are similar with very dark plumage and violet wing patches. The male, shown here, has a yellow bill, and the female's is darker.

The most exciting birds were the swans. All 3 species of swans were found. There are 2 native North American swans (Trumpeter and Tundra) and 1 introduced species (Mute). Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) are introduced from Europe and inhabit city parks and waterways in the east. As they have no natural predators here, they have expanded rapidly and have become pests as they are aggressive and drive smaller birds out of marshes etc where they nest. Apparently, there are some efforts underway to control the populations of these swans. They are large (60" and 20 lb) white birds with S-shaped long neck and orange bill with a large black knob on it. They often swim with their wings held above the body.

Of the native species, the Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) is smaller (52" and 14 lb). In both species, the juveniles are gray and the adults white with black bills. The Tundra Swans have a yellow spot on the bill below the eye. Also, the feathers at the base of the bill between the eyes have a round border.

Here is a close up of the head.

The Trumpeter Swan (TRUS) (Cygnus buccinator) is the largest (60" and 23 lb) native North American waterfowl. It was hunted almost to extinction by the 1930s and in fact was considered extinct until a remnant population was discovered near Yellowstone NP. Later, more were found in the interior of Alaska. It formerly occurred all across North America . Since the 1960s, efforts have been made to reintroduce the birds to their former range in the east including Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa Wisconsin and Ontario. The birds I saw in Ontario are part of that effort. I was only able to get a photo of a gray juvenile, although I did see some adults flying. Notice he has 2 yellow tags on the wings to ID them and follow their progress.

A close up of the head, shows the feathers form a V shape between the eyes.

This remarkable effort to save these majestic birds compares to that of the Bald Eagle and Whooping Crane. For more information on the story of these birds see this report at the Trumpeter Swan Society. It details the US midwest. Here is a recent report on the TRUS in Ontario.

I will be leading a 9 day bird photography tour to Costa Rica in conjunction with Lillian Scott-Baer of Baer Travel in March 2011. We have worked out an itinerary to visit La Selva Preserve, Savegre Mountain Hotel in the central mountains for Resplendant Quetzal and other montane species and Wilson Botanical Gardens (Las Cruces). We have also retained the services of local guide Rudy Zamora to accompany us and locate and ID the birds for us to photograph. We will also have beautiful flowers and hopefully some mammals - tamanduas, monkeys etc as well.

The price will be $1960 double to $2380 single. This includes hotels, all meals, guide, transportation in Costa Rica etc. The only other cost will be airfare and personal purchases (alcohol, souvenirs etc) . Space is limited to 10 persons to maximize our opportunity to see and photograph the birds. I have birded in Costa Rica previously. It is a wonderful country to visit and the bird life is exceptional. I hope that you can join us.

Here is the schedule of payments for the trip.
$ 25 reservation fee (not refundable)
$ 575 due April 30, 2010
$ 600 due July 30, 2010
$ 740 due January 15, 2011

Please send deposits to:

ScoBar Inc.
34 Galway Place
The Woodlands, TX 77382

Note - we will try to pair up singles and triple would be $1890 per person.

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald


photos copyright 2010 David McDonald

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