Wednesday 19 February 2014

The depths of winter

Well we're past the halfway point of February but you wouldn't know it from a birding perspective. We're in the middle of the grips of one of the most desolate birding winters I can remember. Part of that is because we've had such warm winters the last few years that have seen lots of lingering species and lots of open water for ducks and the like.

This article illustrates how frozen the Great Lakes are this year and all those ducks and grebes that normally spend the winter on them have been desperately trying to find any last bit of open water to cling to. The result has been a real lack of some species while other species that normally never stray from the big water of the Great Lakes have moved into the remaining bits of open water - in most cases rivers.
Long-tailed Ducks on the Conestogo River

As usual, we can turn to eBird to get a bit of a measure of how impressive this winter's impact is on waterbirds.

Here's an interesting personal stat: despite living near the shore of Lake Ontario and having some fairly large areas of open water on the Cataraqui River, I have seen a total of 4 individual gulls this month. That's not to say there aren't gulls in Ontario- there are lots, just not where I am. There are fewer than last year for comparison though, with eBird frequencies about 50% lower this year compared to last year.
Herring Gull frequency this year and last
Belted Kingfisher is an even more striking example, with eBird frequencies about 3 times lower this year compared to last year at this time.
Belted Kinfisher frequency this year and last

I'd say those are a couple species that may be a bit under the radar as far as effects of the cold winter go. What is much more conspicuous are the big water ducks showing up on rivers. Compare a couple of eBird maps for Long-tailed Duck, Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser, and Red-necked Grebe.
Long-tailed Duck Jan-Feb 2013(top) and 2014 (bottom)
Greater Scaup Jan-Feb 2013(top) and 2014 (bottom)
Red-breasted Merganser Jan-Feb 2013(top) and 2014 (bottom)
Red-necked Grebe Jan-Feb 2013(top) and 2014 (bottom)
I'd say it is pretty obvious that these birds are turning to inland water bodies in fairly high numbers (keeping in mind that eBird is far from a complete listing of records). While this is exciting for birders in land-locked areas like Wellington, Middlesex, Waterloo and Peterborough it is a very dire situation for the birds. Many are winding up injured on roadways (which can be mistaken as water by a desperate waterbirds at night) and those that make it to open water might be too weak to recover. Several wildlife rehab centres are reporting higher than normal numbers of these birds (here's a video interview with the director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre about this issue). If you happen to come across one of these birds on land, see if it is OK and then get it to some open water, if it is injured find your nearest wildlife rehab centre.

Hopefully relief for the birds (and us) isn't too far away. The calendar is ticking closer to March and the warm spell we are just starting in southern Ontario, while likely not enough to open the lakes up, is hopefully a bit of a sign of things to come.