For the second year in a row, Harlequin Ducks have been reported on the Thames River in London Ontario. Last year a single male bird was observed, whereas this this year a trio of these ducks, two males and one female, have been seen on the river. Harlequin Ducks are rare to our area, as over half of the eastern population of these diving ducks overwinter on the Atlantic coast.
These Harlequins were first reported two weeks ago at Springbank Park. Since then, I have spent a considerable amount of time in the area trying to locate these birds. After an unsuccessful first week, I was finally treated to excellent views of the Harlequin Ducks last Sunday, in the stretch of river downstream from the Springbank Dam.
With the unseasonably warm temperatures, a significant amount of runoff has entered the river as the snow melts. This, combined with recent rain, has water levels on the Thames River unusually high for this time of year. As a result, many of the rapids in this section of river are currently under a significant amount of water, altering this preferred habitat of the Harlequin and making locating these birds more challenging.
On a visit to Springbank Park with my Dad last weekend, we located the Harlequin Ducks downstream from the dam near the small island in the centre of the river. The ducks were roughly three quarters of the way across the river, drifting downstream quickly with the fast current. We watched as the group of Harlequins made their way across the river through the island, which was predominately underwater, and settled in against the near bank directly in front of us. The ducks appeared to be content using a slight jut in the near bank as a current break and were impervious to our presence. Seeing the three Harlequin Ducks at such a close range was quite exiting as last year’s bird typically stayed to the middle or far side of the river. After taking several several photos, my Dad and I carried on with our walk heading to the west end of the park.
On our way back, we watched for the Harlequins in the same stretch of river as we had seen them only minutes earlier. Strangely, we were unable to locate the birds. After carrying on a little further, we noticed the Harlequin Ducks swimming in a line lead by one of the males now slightly upstream from the dam. Not making much headway in the strong current, the three ducks then drifted back through the dam and came to rest once again along the near bank. From here I managed a few more photos as the birds slowly drifted downstream.
I have been out a few times since, and unfortunately have not been able to relocate the three Harlequin Ducks. To my knowledge these birds have only been reported twice, once on February 15 and then again by myself on February 21. With the high water, these birds may not be in the typical areas that we would expect to find Harlequin Ducks, as increased water is flowing over the rapids making these preferred areas almost nonexistent.
If you are heading out this weekend in search of the Harlequin Ducks, be sure to pay close attention to any rapids that you encounter along the river. Keep a close eye for any exposed rocks that may provide a current break or area where these ducks can exit the river. Having said that, don’t discount other types of current breaks including: flooded trees, fallen logs, islands, or bends in the river. With the high water, many of the overwintering diving ducks are associating to these particular areas. Remember too that the Thames is a large river and with such a mild winter to date, there is significantly more open water than in previous years; these ducks could be almost anywhere up or downstream.
Even if you are unsuccessful locating the Harlequin Ducks, there is always plenty to see along the Thames River. Bald Eagles make regular passes up and down the river and often perch in the tall trees that line the banks. A wide variety of waterfowl is also present, albeit spread out due to the high water. Songbirds are always plentiful along the shrubby, tree-lined banks.
I’m sure many birders will be out again this weekend in search of the rare Harlequin Ducks and other overwintering waterfowl on the Thames River. It has been great seeing and talking with so many of my blog followers along the river over the past few weeks. If you do happen to see me, please stop and say hello. I am always happy to share my observations with fellow birders along the way.