February departs as the coldest one on record for London, Ontario, but with cold temperatures came great birding opportunities. Once again this winter the volume and variety of waterfowl on the Thames River has been simply spectacular.
This past week I personally observed sixteen species of waterfowl on the river between Springbank and Greenway Parks. The regular overwintering species are all present as well as increasing numbers of the less common visitors. Redheads, Canvasbacks, Long-tailed Ducks, and Red-breasted Mergansers can now be readily observed at various locations on this stretch of river. Among the new arrivals to the river this week were four White-winged Scoters at Greenway Park.
A complete list of the waterfowl observed this past week on the Thames River is as follows:
- American Black Duck
- Canada Goose
- Common Goldeneye
- Common Merganser
- Greater Scaup
- Harlequin Duck
- Hooded Merganser
- Horned Grebe
- Long-tailed Duck
- Red-breasted Merganser
- Red-necked Grebe
- White-winged Scoter
The rare Harlequin Duck that was first reported on February 10 is still present at Springbank Park. According to local records, this is only the second ever Harlequin Duck recorded in Middlesex County with the last sighting in 1968. This really is a rare opportunity to observe one of these ducks close to home. If you haven’t located this bird yet, my last post Harlequin Duck Continues To Elude Some Area Birders offers suggestions on how to go about locating the Harlequin Duck.
Large, mixed flocks of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls were observed on the ice at Greenway Park. Present in this large flock were two Great Black-backed Gulls. Great Black-backed Gulls are the largest gull in the world and are easily identified by their black backs and white underparts. These Gulls are typically found to our northeast, with their year round range extending from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Coast. Overwintering Great Black-backed Gulls can often be found along the Lake Erie shoreline; like so many other species this winter they have moved inland due to the increased ice coverage on the Great Lakes in search of food.
Raptor activity along the river has been impressive too. Red-tailed Hawks are readily observed soaring high above, as well as lower down perched in trees. Several mammals including Eastern Grey Squirrels have a hard time moving about in deep snow. As a result, many Squirrels are spending a considerable amount of time in and around evergreen trees where the thick branches have prevented snow from reaching the ground. It is here where these mammals forage on the fallen seeds from various cones, as well as peanuts left by park goers.
Red-tailed Hawks are using this as a perfect feeding opportunity. I recently observed these raptors perched 10-15 feet off the ground in the dense cover of the spruce trees. When an unsuspecting squirrel ventured out from under the tree, the Red-tailed Hawk made a short drop onto its prey. These birds appear to be having a much better success rate with this approach than if they were to dive from high above. As a birder and photographer I do not bait birds of prey, and am not leaving peanuts under the trees for the squirrels in an effort to bait the hawks. Other raptors readily observed are Bald Eagles, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks.
A large flock of American Robins were located in the west end of Springbank Park next to the dam. These birds could be observed feeding on the berries from the invasive Common Buckthorn tree. Contrary to what many believe, robins are not a sign of spring as Southwestern Ontario falls well within their year round range. Robins are simply less visible during winter months as there diet switches to fruit and berries, and these birds move around frequently in search of food. In years when fruit is less abundant, robins may migrate south. One of the robins in the flock observed was of interest as the white patches on its plumage indicated it was leucistic. Leucism is the loss of pigment which results in these white patches. It differs from albinism in that it is a reduction of multiple pigments not just melanin, and the eye colour is not effected.
My birding adventures as of late have been limited to Springbank and Greenway Parks. With such a wide variety of birds and the plowed and well packed trails, I have seen little reason to bird anywhere else within the city. As temperatures warm and the snow melts, I look forward to exploring more of my favourite locations and reporting my findings from them.
The time left to view many of these incredible waterfowl species, including the rare Harlequin Duck, so close to home will fade as temperatures increase and spring approaches. Don’t leave it too late or you could miss a once in a lifetime opportunity. Layer up, grab your binoculars or scopes and head down to the Thames River. There is no such thing as a bad day birding along the river. I am quite certain that you too will be impressed with the variety and quantity of waterfowl present on the Thames.