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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Butterfly Migration up on Wednesday. What is in store for 2014?
For more posts on ducks in our area, see these posts on GWGT.