For the second year in a row, the Thames River in London, Ontario has revealed a rare species of waterfowl. Last winter the Thames was briefly visited by two Red-throated Loons, the first two recorded in Middlesex County since 1898.
This winter, another unique visitor has made the Thames River his temporary home. The male Harlequin Duck is easily identified by his slate blue plumage, rusty red sides and white markings. Despite its brilliant colours, from a distance this duck appears quite dark and can be easily overlooked at a quick glance. Once observed, it is difficult to put into words just how beautiful this duck truly is.
The Harlequin Duck’s breeding range extends from northern Quebec and Labrador to the southern portion of Baffin Island, while typically wintering off the Atlantic coast. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, more than half of the eastern population of Harlequin Ducks winter in coastal Maine. Harlequin Ducks have been reported in previous years overwintering on the Great Lakes, with occasional sightings coming from Toronto, Burlington, and the Hamilton Harbour areas.
Birders from all over Southwestern Ontario are traveling to London in hopes of getting a glimpse of this rare duck. Over the past couple of weeks I have spoken with fellow birders from Stratford, Wallaceburg, Sarnia, and Waterloo.
Since it was first reported two weeks ago, the male Harlequin Duck has been observed daily at Springbank Park in London’s west end. If you are hoping to add this duck to your year or life list, than I recommend parking at Storybook Gardens and walking the section of river between Springbank Dam and the old pump house.
Follow the well packed trail in the snow paralleling the bank. While most areas are covered in knee deep snow, this trail is easy to navigate thanks to the heavy foot traffic of all the birders. Be sure to scan both the near and far banks of the river as this duck moves around frequently, and can be a challenge to locate through the dense brush lining the near bank.
The Thames River in London, Ontario is a waterfowl enthusiasts dream. If you are reluctant to make the trip to London just to see the Harlequin Duck, there is plenty of other waterfowl to see. A complete list of waterfowl observed on the Thames River so far this winter is as follows:
- American Black Duck
- Canada Goose
- Common Goldeneye
- Common Merganser
- Greater Scaup
- Harlequin Duck
- Hooded Merganser
- Horned Grebe
- Long-tailed Duck
- Northern Pintail
- Red-breasted Merganser
- Red-necked Grebe
As was the case last winter, the extremely cold temperatures have the Great Lakes freezing over, leaving diving ducks such as the Harlequin Duck migrating to inland rivers in search of open water. Open water is key to the survival of the Harlequin Duck, as they feed on a variety of aquatic life including: molluscs, crustaceans, fish, and other invertebrates. Harlequin Ducks dive below the surface and use their bills to capture prey from beneath rocks and along the river bottom.
Aside from the open water, there is another reason why I believe we are seeing an increase in waterfowl on the Thames River over the past several seasons. Springbank Dam has been non operational since 2008, drastically improving water quality and returning the river to its natural state. As a result, wildlife is thriving in the area. By not damming the river each spring, willows, alders, poplars, and birch trees are all rejuvenating an enlarged riparian zone, an area that with an operational dam would otherwise be underwater.
This naturally reforested riparian zone provides a buffer between humans and waterfowl, giving them a greater sense of security. Allowing the river to flow freely year round improves water quality by preventing algae and sediment from building up on the river bottom. This lack of sediment permits aquatic life to thrive including the crustaceans and invertebrates that many of these diving ducks, including the Harlequin, feed on. An abundance of food, translates to an abundance of ducks. For more on how the Thames River is benefiting without the dam, read my blog post Thames River Much Healthier Without Springbank Dam.
When searching for the Harlequin Duck, or other northern waterfowl species on the Thames River, move slowly and quietly up and down the bank. These birds are not as accustomed to humans as the Mallards and Canada Geese are, and can be easily startled. Avoid sudden movements; when searching with binoculars or taking a picture, raise your camera or binoculars slowly to your face. When you do locate the bird and are pointing it out for someone else, raise your arm slowly. Be aware of any noise you may be making, whether crunching snow under your feet or the sound of your clothing brushing against tree branches. These ducks will fly at the slightest movement or unfamiliar sound.
Remember to be respectful out there, both of the birds and of other birders. I have been really impressed so far with everyone I’ve seen searching the river for this beautiful duck. No one has attempted to get too close, and all of the birders are working together and assisting others who have not yet observed the Harlequin Duck.
If you get the opportunity this weekend, head down to Springbank Park and get a look at this beautiful Harlequin Duck and all of the other wonderful species overwintering on the Thames River.
*Click on the images in this post to view them larger*