Not Spring-like Yet – Ducks and the Ice, Oh My!


I decided to go out and seriously photograph the migrating ducks this week. I have posts with a lot of information upcoming on migrating birds, lots of facts of which you might not be unaware.

Very rarely do I go out with my AF Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens because it is very heavy and also too expensive to lose or damage when by myself. I have a meet coming up with the birdwatchers on the 29th to the Lake Ontario Plains for the early Spring migrants and may take it along. On long walks, it is tough to carry, but also hard to get close to the birds with any other lens I own.


Scaup in Flight

While out today photographing, I was noticing all the ducks navigating on, around and through the ice on the river. I showed ducks in earlier posts before I realized the situation had gotten so serious. Here is one from mid January. And another from early January.

I also noticed the ice breakers out chopping up the ice. I am not sure if they were doing this to help the ducks, or doing what they do every year when the ice boom is lifted. Ducks have been starving on the Great Lakes this winter.


Mallard pair on ice, see him peeking at me?

Some ducks are here in winter and will migrate further North in a few weeks for breeding. Other ducks are here year-round. While here through winter, they must dive for their food and that looked like a problem all winter. I thought since I was noticing distressed ducks, I better look into this and see what is being studied and reported. This is what I found…


Duck diving.

The Great Lakes this year have been up to 90% frozen. And this has caused a record number of duck deaths. New York Department of Conservation has reported that waterfowl are down in the Niagara River to Lake Ontario by tens of thousands this winter. In their count in the last few weeks, there were 240,000 water birds in one area’s weekly count. More recently, there were 43,000.

Necropsy revealed just how horrid the situation had become. Some birds in the study had their stomachs filled with feathers all the way down through their intestines. Others feeding on zebra mussels had toxic levels of selenium in their bodies, but most, their stomachs were empty.


Greater Scaup in small pool in the Niagara River.

This is not only affecting ducks, but also other fish-eating birds, many of which migrated to the Great Lakes from northern Canada and Alaska for the winter.


Female Scaup flying.

The ducks seeing rivers frozen, have been flying into wet road and parking lots thinking they are water, smashing into the hard asphalt. Others, realizing it is not water, fly down, vere away and end up in a snow bank.


Bufflehead taking off.

These are the same ducks needing water to take off. They need to run on the water’s surface first. Landing in the snow grounds them. Additionally, birds which spend all their time on water don’t really do well on land, and when marooned to land, their natural waterproofing can be damaged by dirt or road salt. If making it to water, they can’t swim if feathers are dirty as they will soak up the water weighing them down.


There have been stories of them frozen in the ice because of this, still alive. Studies show some ducks tried to fly farther south but were too weak long before finding open water. Ducks found, both alive and dead, had no fat reserves and no muscle mass with many in serious shape. The estimates on Lake Erie are tens of thousands of ducks lost, estimates because dead ducks are just starting to surface.


Dead duck to the right.

In the small area where I was photographing today, there were five dead ducks that surfaced from below the ice. Yesterday there was only one. A deceased duck is seen floating in the image above, most likely it starved to death.


The affected ducks are the diver ducks, like greater and lesser scaup, redheads, goldeneye, canvasbacks, buffleheads, and red-breasted mergansers.



Duck dieoffs are not unusual, but this particular year the numbers skyrocketed as a result of the harsh winter weather. Our local paper The Buffalo News, reported on the starving ducks in our area, but it only takes a trip to the river to see for oneself.


Most of the deceased birds collected for study were red-breasted mergansers, like below and greater scaup like above, ducks whose small mouths can only eat small fish, like minnows that live in shallower waters.


Red-breasted Merganser

The waters in the shallows have been frozen solid for weeks, and the Niagara River has had ice up to 100 yards off shore, creating a shelf where minnows could hide.  All dead ducks I saw today were greater scaups. See this image of the ice in the Niagara River.


Buffleheads in flight.

Although Lake Erie was largely frozen over, some open water remained on the Niagara River throughout winter. Lake Ontario is a much deeper body of water and was largely open.

Honestly, this is what happens when you insult the flock. Everybody turns tail.

Many of the ducks I have been showing are from both bodies of water. The problem is with so many ducks there is only so much fish available, so this area still has ducks in distress.

Luckily, while I was photographing, a school of fish came into the small area where these ducks were waiting. They were waiting for about an hour and not one duck dove, then all of a sudden, it was a feeding frenzy, ducks diving all over the small areas of open water. One red merganser can eat up to 250 small fish per day too.

All hope is not lost for some lucky ducks though. Wildlife rehabilitators have been working tirelessly to save some, feeding and cleaning the birds.



I have been showing how pretty winter is in Niagara Falls, but winter has an ugly side too.


A duck definitely on ice and pondering what to do about it. This image won a competition and I am adding it to the photo group I post to on Facebook. Let’s see if the other photographers like it as much as the judges did. It is entitled “This Bites”, and this winter, it definitely did for the ducks.


This Bites

Butterfly Migration up on Wednesday. What is in store for 2014?

For more posts on ducks in our area, see these posts on GWGT.

Down to the River in Winter

Ducks on Lake Ontario

Ducks Over the Falls

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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26 Responses to Not Spring-like Yet – Ducks and the Ice, Oh My!

  1. Wonderful photography!

  2. Debra says:

    Great shots as always. ty
    But I am sorry to hear about the suffering. I wonder if ducks have been confused by all the recent mild winters — adapting by not expending the energy to fly further only to find the area inhospitable as winter wears on.

  3. Emily Heath says:

    How awful, dying of cold and hunger. I’m glad a few are being helped but it is a sorry sight.

  4. alesiablogs says:

    I hate to hear about the deaths. Glad you took your big camera out and took such awesome photos! Hope that big camera wasn’t the reason for your falling the other day!!!

  5. Lake Michigan has been frozen pretty much solid for months now. A few days ago the Chicago Tribune ran a story on all the dead ducks to be found along the lake shore. Some wonderful pictures, despite the very sad state of affairs.

  6. debibradford says:

    Interesting blog post. Living in the south we do not get those great expanses of ice, such as the north has seen this winter. I haven’t stopped to consider the waterfowl and how they’ve been effected. Thank you for the enlightenment. What can we do?

  7. My Heartsong says:

    Thanks for a wonderful, and somewhat sad, post. Love the first one of the Lesser Scaup taking off and frozen in action, thankfully by your camera. I am sure the weather conditions and food supply affect migrations immensely and it is important to do counts and report oddities. You have great captures here, I am looking forward to seeing them again.

  8. Pat says:

    Wonderful shots. It is sad to hear of the toll this exceptionally harsh winter has taken on ducks and other wildlife.

  9. I’m so sorry to hear that… Winter can be harsh and unforgiving.
    I wish a better life for the remaining ones.
    My dear Donna, your photos are so beautiful and moving.

  10. debsgarden says:

    Great photos! I guess in my ignorance I thought these ducks would migrate farther south!

  11. milliontrees says:

    Distressing. Thanks for making us think of the ducks.

  12. I can see why that last photo won a competition–great photo and great caption! Actually all your photos should win competitions. I’m embarrassed to say I was unaware of the ducks in particular having problems. I guess I figured all birds and wildlife are having greater die-offs this year. But I did think that ducks could just fly south to open water. Thanks for sharing this information.

  13. I love the photos of the water. It seems like I can touch it.

  14. Crys Stewart says:

    Reblogged this on Rhymes with Linnaeus and commented:
    With all the news about how much our wild birds have suffered through this winter, the duck photos and report in Garden Walk Garden Talk blogger Donna Brok’s posting are touching.

  15. mariekeates says:

    Poor ducks. When we moan about the harsh winter, or in the UK the wet winter, we forget the wildlife is suffering far more than we are.

  16. Ree says:

    Brilliant Pictures!

  17. bittster says:

    I hate to see these things, but I try to believe in a balance. Think of the thousands of fish that would have ended up in a duck belly, I’m hoping they enjoyed the reprieve. Also these are the winters that favor a strong migratory instinct and makes it hard on the birds that stay close to home. I’m thinking of all the Canadian geese that don’t migrate for one reason or another….
    Awesome pictures as usual!

  18. Annette says:

    It’s sad how nature takes its toll and we often contribute, but as always I enjoyed your wonderful pics and the information. Have a good week, Donna 🙂

  19. Rose says:

    Fascinating post! I know very little about the different species of ducks, and I wasn’t aware of the problems they faced this winter–so sad. The buffleheads are beautiful. Congratulations on your photo award! Well-deserved, as your photos are amazing.

  20. It is so sad to hear of the ducks starving. This has been an unusually brutal winter and it has taken its toll on the wildlife. Your photography is beautiful as always Donna and the captures of the ducks in flight are absolutely amazing!

  21. lucindalines says:

    Amazing, I love that shot when the flock turns tail, it is like a pattern.

  22. It seems like spring might actually happen here starting on Thursday so I hope that will mean thawing where you are and food for the ducks.

  23. Thank you this fascinating, saddening yet hopeful information!!! Your photos are beyond description beautiful. Your information is a lot to process intellectually AND emotionally.

  24. A.M.B. says:

    Winter definitely does have an ugly side. I am very happy to see this winter go (not that it really feels like spring yet!).

  25. Oh Donna this broke my heart. I will have to monitor this more on our lake although I don’t think many geese or ducks stay around here since the lake stays frozen for such a long time.

  26. Donna–I’m glad you tempered this grim account with that one “turned tail” photo–it’s almost an abstract design. I never knew the particular conditions that these birds need (conditions that they did NOT get this past winter). A well-illustrated, highly informative post.

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