Wildlife and Nature Photography

Posts tagged ‘Waterfowl’

A Proven Hot Spot For Winter Waterfowl

IMG 2969 Edit Edit 2 - A Proven Hot Spot For Winter Waterfowl

A wide variety of waterfowl including this female Northern Pintail were recently observed in Springbank Park

In my last post, Fresh Snow Provides The Perfect Backdrop For Photographing Birds, I shared some of my recent observations and images from Springbank Park, one of my favourite winter birding locations. One of the reasons I love this park so much is the abundance of waterfowl within it. Those of you that have followed my blog for a while will know that I absolutely love waterfowl and often target these birds specifically during the winter months. 

Throughout winter, Springpark Park is home to a wide variety of waterfowl with hundreds of ducks and geese present on any given day, albeit Mallards and Canada Geese are the most prevalent species. When it comes to ducks, a good population of divers can be found within the park from December to March each year. Mixed in with the large flocks of Mallards other dabblers are often present, but locating them requires a keen eye to recognize the subtle differences between the species.   

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Recognizing the cinnamon coloured head and dark bill helped me quickly pick this female Northern Pintail out of a large flock of Mallards.

I will be the first to admit that bird identification is extremely challenging and has taken me a significant number of years to confidently identify the number of birds I can. Referencing a quality field guide is something I still do to be 100% positive if required. One thing that has helped me incredibly over the years to assist in proper identification is to look for the subtle differences that separate similar species. 

When it comes to waterfowl, the Northern Pintail is my favourite. I find the male’s plumage absolutely stunning while the females, as is the case with most birds, appear more drab but equally beautiful just the same. 

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Each winter I seem to locate at least one Northern Pintail within Springbank Park. In January 2016, I found this pair resting in small pond adjacent to Storybook Gardens. Note the subtle differences between the female Pintail and the female Mallard.

On my visit to Springbank Park last week, I spent a significant amount of time scanning the 100s of Mallards searching for other dabblers that may be mixed in. American Black Ducks were easily picked out by their contrasting dark plumage. While I observed plenty of divers on the river including Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, and Hooded Mergansers; Mallards and American Black Ducks appeared to be the only dabblers present. As I made my way past the small duck pond adjacent to Storybook Gardens, a cinnamon head and dark bill caught my eye. As I moved closer to the fence, I could see that this duck was in fact a female Northern Pintail. For me, these two subtle differences helped quickly separate this bird from large flock of female Mallards. 

This particular sighting was the highlight of my day as not only is the Northern Pintail my favourite duck, these birds are typically much further south at this time of year overwintering in the southern United States. That being said, I always seem to locate at least one Northern Pintail within Springbank Park at some point during the winter each year. 

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In 2013, I found this male Wood Duck resting on the same fallen log as the pair of Northern Pintails located in 2016.

Over the years, I have found a number of interesting dabblers and divers within this small pond beside Stroybook Gardens during the winter months. Northern Pintail, Amercan Black Duck, Wood Duck, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, and Common Goldeneye have all been observed.

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 Last winter, this male Redhead spent several days in this same small pond providing excellent views.

If you happen to visit Springbank Park throughout the winter months, try not to dismiss all the ducks present as Mallards. Look for subtle differences in colour to differentiate between species. If you are unsure what the species is, make note of these variations whether it’s feather colour or bill colour and look the bird up later in your field guide or favourite bird identification app. By taking the time to look for and recognize these characteristics, you may just add a few new birds to your year or life list. 

Good birding,

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Male Redhead Provides Excellent Views

redhead - Male Redhead Provides Excellent Views

This male Redhead was observed in a small pond at London’s Springbank Park.

For area birders, Springbank Park located in London’s west end is a popular destination. The mixed habitat and adjacent Thames River provide the perfect environment for a wide variety of birds, including waterfowl. When local lakes and ponds freeze, a large number of ducks and geese can be observed on the river within the park as it is often the only source of open water in the area.

With Great Lakes ice coverage not nearly what it has been the previous two winters, many expected far fewer ducks on the river this winter. Concentrations of ducks have not equaled that of the winters of 2014 and 2015, but local waterfowl enthusiasts, myself included, have still been treated to some spectacular views from within Springbank Park this winter, including a Greater White-fronted Goose and three Harlequin Ducks.

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Eye and bill colour are key field marks that distinguish the male Redhead from a male Canvasback.

Over the weekend, a male Redhead could be observed in the narrow pond that parallels Storybook Gardens. This pond is typically filled with hundreds of Mallards and is often overlooked by some birders that quickly dismiss all ducks on the pond as this abundant dabbler. Those taking the time this weekend to scan the small pond were rewarded with close up views of a beautiful diver, the male Redhead.

Redheads are a medium sized diving duck. Males display a red head, black breast, and grey body. They are similar in appearance to a male Canvasback, but with a traditional duck-shaped head and not the sloping forehead of a Canvasback. Other key field marks to look for on a male Redhead are the bluish-grey bill and yellow-orange eyes. On the male Canvasback, the eyes are red and the bill is black.

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After feeding on aquatic vegetation, the male Redhead exited the pond and began to preen.

Redheads feed primarily on submerged aquatic vegetation, but will also consume: snails, mussels, insects, and their larvae. I watched this duck on Saturday and Sunday as it dove repeatedly in the small pond, surfacing with aquatic vegetation. The pond seemed to offer adequate food, as the bird appeared to be feeding well.

With above seasonal temperatures on Sunday, Springbank Park was quite busy as it is one of London’s most popular multi-use parks. The male Redhead was not agitated by the constant foot traffic of adults, children, and dogs. After watching this bird feed for several minutes Sunday afternoon, it then climbed up on the bank of the pond where it proceeded to preen and settle in for a nap, unfazed by parkgoers.

male redhead - Male Redhead Provides Excellent Views

Male Redhead

If you are wishing to catch a glimpse of this beautiful duck, he was observed in the east end of the pond closest to the old pump house. There is plenty of free parking located at Storybook Gardens, with this small pond being a short walk along the paved pathway to the east. This Redhead was observed all weekend long and will hopefully continue to provide excellent views into next week.

Good birding,

Harlequin Duck Continues To Elude Some Area Birders

Watermark 18 - Harlequin Duck Continues To Elude Some Area Birders

I was able to photograph the Harlequin Duck in flight as he followed a flock of Common Goldeneyes downriver.

Since speaking with Wei Chen this past Monday on CBC’s Ontario Morning about the rare Harlequin Duck overwintering on the Thames River, I have received several emails from fellow birders looking for assistance in locating this bird. Let me start by saying that locating this bird is not as easy as many think. I have been fortunate to locate the male Harlequin Duck most days, but it has required quite a bit of leg work.

If you still need this bird for your life list and are hoping to find it at Springbank Park in London, Ontario I would like to offer a few suggestions based on my experiences. Begin your search at Storybook Gardens and walk the section of river between Springbank Dam and the old pump house. I personally have had the best luck locating the Harlequin Duck early to mid afternoon. Most days I chose the afternoon only because I wanted to wait for the temperatures to warm up, making walking more comfortable. On the few occasions I set out in the morning I was unsuccessful locating the Harlequin.

Watermark 1 23 - Harlequin Duck Continues To Elude Some Area Birders

The fast moving water west of the pump house is a favourite spot of the male Harlequin Duck. There is a lot of tree cover on the bank and this duck is often tight to it. A methodical search in this area is often rewarding.

Be sure to look very close to the near bank as the Harlequin is quite comfortable close to shore in areas where there is thick tree cover. The section of Thames River between the parking lot at Storybook Gardens and the old pump house has a lot of tree cover on the near bank, so take your time and look as closely to the bank as you can. I have had a lot of success locating the Harlequin in the fast moving water west of the pump house, only a few feet from the bank. In open areas, the Harlequin Duck is more likely to find security mixed in with the other waterfowl on the far side of the river. It is here where scanning with binoculars can reveal its location. I personally have not seen the Harlequin Duck upstream from the pump house, so once you reach this point I recommend turning around and heading back downstream.

Further west towards the dam I have repeatedly located the Harlequin Duck in tight to shore, where the the lower road curves and carries on to the dam. If you are not familiar with this location, to the south there is a building up on the hill with washrooms and another parking lot directly behind that. The tree cover on the bank here is especially thick, but a favourite location of the Harlequin Duck. This is the most westerly location in which I have seen the Harlequin; I have yet to see it as far downstream as the dam.

Watermark 1 34 - Harlequin Duck Continues To Elude Some Area Birders

On cloudy days the Harlequin Duck’s plumage camouflages well against the dark water. Here the male Harlequin slips past some Mallards and Canada Geese.

The Harlequin Duck has been associating with a small flock of Common Goldeneyes. Scanning these small flocks will often reveal the Harlequin. Pay attention to flying Goldeneyes too. The wing beats of the Common Goldeneye can be heard when taking off. Learn to recognize this sound and immediately look in the direction when you hear it. On several occasions I’ve observed the Harlequin Duck as the trailing bird in a group of Goldeneyes as they move up or down river.

Despite the Harlequin Duck’s colourful plumage, it appears quite dark from a distance. On cloudy days the dark, shadowed water provides excellent camouflage; looking for its white markings is critical. On sunny days, the slate blue feathers blend in with the bright blue water, making sightings challenging under these conditions as well. Again, the white markings on the head and back are what best gives away the Harlequin Duck’s location.

Watermark 1 42 - Harlequin Duck Continues To Elude Some Area Birders

The Harlequin is often seen associating with a group of Common Goldeneyes.

Locating the Harlequin Duck typically takes a fair bit of legwork. You may be one of the lucky ones who gets out of your car and there it is, but be prepared to spend a few hours searching. On days when more birders are searching for the Harlequin there are many people scanning the river and sharing their sightings, but the increase in foot traffic makes the Harlequin more wary. It is on these days I have found searching as close to shore as possible the most successful.

It looks like we are in for plenty of sunshine on Saturday, so I imagine Springbank Park will be quite busy again with birders hoping to add the endangered Harlequin Duck to their life lists. If you are one of them, keep these suggestions in mind while you search and I think your chances of success will be much greater.

Good birding,


Healthy Thames River Home To Abundance Of Waterfowl

Watermark 14 - Healthy Thames River Home To Abundance Of Waterfowl

The Common Goldeneye is one of the many species of diving duck that overwinters on the Thames River. In recent years, the number of these ducks on the river during winter months has increased.

Once again this winter, the Thames River is hosting a remarkable variety of waterfowl. With ice coverage on the Great Lakes exceeding 80%, ducks, geese, and grebes are migrating inland searching for open water. Several of these birds feed on a variety of aquatic life including: fish, molluscs, crustaceans, larvae, and even aquatic vegetation. For diving ducks and grebes, feeding takes place by diving below the surface and capturing prey with their bills. In order for these diving ducks to be successful, they must be able to reach the bottom to access snails, clams, and crayfish from beneath rocks and logs on the river bed.

Watermark 15 - Healthy Thames River Home To Abundance Of Waterfowl

Of the fifteen species of waterfowl currently overwintering on the Thames River, eight are deemed rare by eBird either by species or location. Redheads are one of the species deemed rare. Each winter we observe more Redheads on the river during winter months. Readheads are a diving duck that feed on aquatic vegetation.

The wide variety of waterfowl that has overwintered on the Thames River the past few years is a good indication of the improved overall health of the river. Since Springbank Dam became non operational in 2008, the Thames River is slowly transforming back to its natural state. The most observable change is the natural reforestation occurring along the river banks. The increased vegetation in this riparian area is preventing bank erosion, and reducing the amount of harmful nutrients and pesticides that enter the river. Bank erosion leads to sedimentation which negatively impacts the health of the river bottom, where many of the tiny vertebrates and invertebrates that these ducks feed on live. High nutrient levels, such as phosphorus, create unhealthy algae blooms which again negatively impact the overall health of the river.

Watermark 16 - Healthy Thames River Home To Abundance Of Waterfowl

Each winter Hooded Mergansers can be observed on the Thames River in London, Ontario. These small diving ducks can be observed feeding on small fish and in this case crayfish.

When Springabnk dam was operational, water was held back within the city from late May until early October each year. Damming the river promoted sedimentation, caused nutrients and bacteria to build up, and harmful algae to form. Too much algae is harmful as it reduces water quality and starves other organisms of oxygen. These factors are what led to the unsightly appearance and smell so many Londoners associated with the Thames.

Treated and untreated sewage continues to be released into the Thames River at various location around the city, including Greenway Pollution Control Centre. Human and animal waste increases harmful bacteria levels, such as e-coli, which also negatively impacts the water quality. Allowing the Thames River to flow freely, reduces the build up of this bacteria within our city.

Watermark 17 - Healthy Thames River Home To Abundance Of Waterfowl

Another bird deemed rare for our location by eBird is the Greater Scaup. Once again this winter, scaup have been drawn to the open water of the Thames River, and the abundance of aquatic life that is paramount for them surviving the winter months.

By having a free flowing river the past six years, levels of harmful bacteria, nutrients, sediment, and algae have all improved. These improvements are published in the Upper Thames River Conservation Authorities Watershed Report Cards. To some, these benefits are not visible by simply looking at the river. In fact, many Londoners believe the water level appears too low based on the Thames River’s previously unnatural dammed levels.

The improved water quality is evident by the increase and abundance of waterfowl overwintering on the Thames River each year. The improved water quality and reduction in sedimentation has created a much healthier river bottom. As a result, several small organisms that reside on the river bottom are thriving; ones that you and I can’t observe while walking along the river in one of our city parks. This abundant aquatic life is what keeps these many species of waterfowl present on the Thames River throughout the winter months. Without suitable water and an adequate food supply, these ducks would continue their migration to the southern United States or the Atlantic coast.

Watermark 1 22 - Healthy Thames River Home To Abundance Of Waterfowl

This Harlequin Duck is listed as endangered in Canada. Maintaining and improving the health of the Thames River is something we need to take seriously in order for such species to survive. This rare Harlequin Duck is one of the many rare species currently overwintering on the Thames River.

Simply put, wildlife does not lie. The increase, abundance, and variety of all wildlife, not just waterfowl, present on the Thames River indicates a healthy and sustainable river. Water from the Thames River eventually reaches Lake Erie, where London draws a portion of its drinking water from. Keeping the river in its natural state will not only protect endangered species, like the Harlequin Duck, it will help protect the future of our drinking water. The natural reforestation that is occurring along the river banks improves the urban forest, and our air quality as well.

Perhaps we should take more time to observe the nature around us and use it to measure the health of our environment.

Good birding,



Rare Harlequin Duck Attracts Birders to London, Ontario

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Over half of the eastern population of Harlequin Ducks overwinter off coastal Maine. Luckily for area birders, this male Harlequin Duck can be observed on the Thames River in London, Ontario.

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.

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Male Harlequin Duck setting its wings after preening on the Thames River.

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.

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Birders are traveling hundreds of kilometers to London,Ontario in hopes of catching a glimpse of the rare Harlequin Duck.

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.

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Winter provides excellent opportunities to view a wide variety of waterfowl on the Thames River. Here a male Redhead is captured flying downstream.

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

    Watermark 1 11 1 - Rare Harlequin Duck Attracts Birders to London, Ontario

    Common (pictured here), Red-breasted, and Hooded Mergansers can all be observed on the Thames River.

  • Bufflehead
  • Canada Goose
  • Canvasback
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Common Merganser
  • Greater Scaup
  • Harlequin Duck
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Horned Grebe
  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Mallard
  • Northern Pintail
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Redhead
  • 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.

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This male Long-tailed Duck was observed slightly downstream from the location where the Harlequin Duck has been frequenting.

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.

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Horned Grebes are among the waterfowl currently observed on the Thames River at Springbank Park.

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.

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Female Common Goldeneye.

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The Harlequin Duck on the Thames River has been associating with a small group of Common Goldeneyes. Be sure to look closely at groups of Goldeneyes when searching for the Harlequin Duck.

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*

Good birding,

Update February 27, 2015: The Harlequin Duck Continues To Elude Some Area Birders, here are some suggestions on how to best locate this rare duck.

Good Birding Report: London, Ontario
January 12-18 2015

IMG 1152 1 - Good Birding Report: London, Ontario <br/> January 12-18 2015

Bald Eagles are one of my favourite birds to observe and photograph along the Thames River during winter months.

Great birding opportunities continued across the Forest City this past week with several notable sightings. Winter migrants continue to move into and through our area, providing birders with excellent opportunities to view some beautiful species.

I headed down to Greenway Park, early in the week, after hearing reports of a Greater White-fronted Goose being observed on the Thames River in this location. These geese breed across the Arctic tundra and spend winters in Mexico, Central America, and in the Gulf States of the southern USA. Greater White-fronted Geese are not common east of the Mississippi, making this an excellent find in the city. Unfortunately I was not able to locate the bird, but was treated to several other species.

While scanning the river in an attempt to locate the goose, I observed a single male Northern Pintail swimming on the far side of the river. These dabbling ducks are common, but typically winter in the southern USA or Atlantic Seaboard, but are common in our area this time of year. I was able to snap a few photos, and later submitted my sighting to both the Middlesex/Elgin/Oxford Natural History group as well as eBird.

IMG 0458 1 - Good Birding Report: London, Ontario <br/> January 12-18 2015

Male Northern Pintail swimming behind a female Mallard.

Redheads were another first of the year species I observed on the river this week. Several of these diving ducks were observed at various locations between Springbank Dam and Greenway Park. Redheads feed on aquatic vegetation, and are drawn to the open water of the Thames River during winter months.

IMG 1308 1 - Good Birding Report: London, Ontario <br/> January 12-18 2015

Several Redheads, both males (pictured here) and females, were viewed at various locations on the Thames River.

Great views were also available of the regular winter ducks on the Thames. This past week saw the number of Buffleheads, Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, and Common Goldeneyes increase once again. A short walk through either Greenway or Springbank Park will quickly reveal these species. Many of these ducks, including the Buffleheads and Common Goldeneyes, are going through their courtship displays and even mating. Observing these courtship displays is quite entertaining. Male Common Goldeneyes tilt their heads back, splash water in the air with their feet, then extend their necks as they let out their “peent” call. The courtship display of the male Bufflehead is less dramatic, consisting mostly of head bobbing and water splashing, but still fun to observe.

IMG 0927 1 - Good Birding Report: London, Ontario <br/> January 12-18 2015

Some ducks begin their courtship displays as early as December. Common Goldeneyes were observed courting and breeding this past week.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that winter is the best time to observe Bald Eagles along the Thames River. This past week did not disappoint, with several adults and juvenile birds observed. In fact, every outing this past week along the river revealed at least one eagle.

IMG 1149 1 - Good Birding Report: London, Ontario <br/> January 12-18 2015

Bald Eagle approaching from upriver.

Birding along the river is not just about waterfowl and eagles though. Several species of songbird were also observed. Nothing out of the ordinary to report, but quality views of Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Woodpeckers, as well as Brown Creepers and Golden-crowned Kinglets were daily occurrences. I also observed several mammal species including: Raccoons, Squirrels, and White-tailed Deer. A complete list of the birds I observed between January 12 and 18, 2015 is included below.


  • American Black DuckIMG 9580 1 300x200 - Good Birding Report: London, Ontario <br/> January 12-18 2015
  • Mallard
  • Canada Goose
  • Redhead
  • Common Merganser
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Bufflehead
  • Northern Pintail
  • Bald Eagle
  • Red-tailed HawkIMG 0372 1 300x200 - Good Birding Report: London, Ontario <br/> January 12-18 2015
  • Northern Cardinal
  • American Crow
  • American Goldfinch
  • House Finch
  • Mourning Dove
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Blue Jay
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Red-breasted NuthatchIMG 9987 1 300x200 - Good Birding Report: London, Ontario <br/> January 12-18 2015
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Carolina Wren
  • Brown Creeper

Several Snowy Owl sightings were reported just south of the city this past week. It seems these birds are returning to the same areas they were found during last year’s irruption. Multiple birders reported seeing Snowy Owls in the vicinity of the city dump on Manning Drive. If you live in the city’s south end, this will be a closer option for viewing these birds, rather than driving out to the Strathroy area. Be sure to check the eBird map for the locations of recent sightings before you head out. Remember, you can view the recent sightings of any species anywhere in the world using the eBird map.

If you have not made it out to observe some of these beautiful winter birds yet, I encourage you to do so. Many of these species will only be around until early March at the latest. Leave it too long and you will have to wait until next year. Don’t let these incredible birding opportunities pass you by.

Good birding,



Winter Waterfowl Have Returned To The Thames River

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Hooded Mergansers are one of the many waterfowl species that overwinter on the Thames River.

Winter is less then a week away and temperatures are not feeling very wintery. However, the Thames River is offering nice views of some winter waterfowl. The Thames River is a popular overwintering area for a wide variety of diving ducks, and many of the regular winter visitors are now present.

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Common Mergansers are the most abundant of the winter species currently being observed on the Thames River.

Over the past week I have been checking out various sections of the Thames River between Springbank and Harris Parks. This my favourite section of the river for finding winter waterfowl. The most abundant species present throughout this section is the Common Merganser. Several small groups of Hooded Mergansers, were also observed on this section of river. These small ducks, especially the females, are sometimes difficult to spot from a distance. Their dark plumage blends in against the river, so watching for movement or a ripple on the water can be helpful. The males, with their white feathers on the sides of their crests, are much easier to locate. Many times I spot the males first, then notice the females mixed in within the group upon closer inspection. Buffleheads are also present, but not in the the same numbers as the Mergansers yet. Earlier this week I noticed my first pair of Common Goldeneyes of the season on the river.

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Female Hooded Mergansers can be difficult to spot at far distances. Their drab colour tends to blend in with the water.

These, and other ducks, overwinter annually on the Thames river and will be present throughout the winter months. If you wish to view some of these species on the river, but do not want to cover the several kilometer section I mentioned, than I would suggest Greenway Park. I observed the highest concentration of winter waterfowl between the CN overpass and the outflow at Greenway Pollution Control Plant. This narrow section of river provides excellent views, even if you don’t own a pair of binoculars or spotting scope. Make sure to move slowly and quietly along the banks as many of these northern species are not as accustomed to human presence as our resident ducks. The slightest noise or erratic movement will startle these birds, causing them swim to the far side of the river or fly off.

IMG 6099 1 - Winter Waterfowl Have Returned To The Thames River

This past week saw a pair of Common Goldeneyes show up on the Thames River.

As winter sets in and temperatures fall, many of our local water bodies will ice up. As the amount of frozen water increases across the area, so too will the number of ducks on the Thames. Often in January and February the Thames River is the only open water in the area for these diving ducks to feed, making it the perfect place to observe winter waterfowl. If observing winter waterfowl is on your birding wishlist this season, than I highly recommend checking out the Thames River.

Good birding,



Winter Blast Drastically Changes Birding Conditions

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Cold temperatures and a dusting of snow had birds like this Black-capped Chickadee seeking food and shelter.

What a difference a week makes. Last Tuesday, temperatures in London spiked to 16°C. For many, outdoor activities were enjoyed in a light jacket or sweater. So far this week, we’ve seen a light dusting of snow and daytime highs hovering around -6°C. Add in the windchill and it feels more like -19°C.

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Birds use several techniques to keep warm in cold weather. Feather puffing, demonstrated by this Song Sparrow, creates pockets of air which act as insulation. Shivering increases their metabolism, generating more body heat.

Not one to let the cold keep me indoors and needing my daily fix of birds, I headed to Westminster Ponds ESA. I knew the strong southwest wind blowing at 35kmh and gusting to over 50kmh would make the birding a bit tricky. Finding areas that provide shelter from the wind and a source of food for the birds would be key to having success. Fortunately there are plenty of such areas within the ESA.

I decided to start my walk in the woods knowing that the row of Eastern White Pine trees on the edge of the forest would provide an excellent wind break. Among the pines I could hear the calls of the Black-capped Chickadee. Pausing briefly, I could see several birds flitting amongst the branches, inspecting the cones for any remaining seeds. As I entered the mixed deciduous forest behind the row of pines, more Chickadees appeared. Also present were Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and a White-breasted Nuthatch.

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Male Northern Cardinal feeding on a Common Buckthorn berry.

The back edge of the forest is overgrown with Common Buckthorn, an invasive species in Ontario. Despite the fact that they are not native, several bird species feed on their berries during winter months when other food becomes scarce. I have read mixed reports on whether or not buckthorn berries are healthy for birds. Some suggest the berries give birds diarrhea and can lead to dehydration, others claim only unripe berries cause diarrhea. It is believed that buckthorn berries are less nutritious than native berries because they are higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein and fat. Regardless of which theory is true, you cannot argue the fact that birds eat buckthorn berries. Among the tangles of buckthorn branches, several Northern Cardinals were present feeding on the bounty of fruit.

Following the trail through the buckthorn thicket, I could hear the high pitched notes of the Golden-crowned Kinglet. Glancing amongst the maze of branches revealed two of these birds. As is the case with all birds, learning their songs and calls is the best way to locate them. If not for hearing them, these tiny little birds would have gone unnoticed.

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Berries from the Common Buckthorn tree, an invasive species in Ontario, are a popular food of the American Robin during winter.

The stand of trees on the west side of Saunders Pond yielded a sufficient wind break for a group of Mallards making their way along the thin ice at the ponds edge. Hooded Mergansers could be seen further out toward the north shore. The row of Common Buckthorn alongside the boardwalk revealed a flock of American Robins feeding on the berries. A single Song Sparrow was present seeking refuge from the wind.

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The winter range of the American Robin stretches across our region and even into Quebec and the Maritimes. Look for them in winter along forest edges, rivers, and ponds where berry trees and shrubs are present.

After circling the pond, I came to the open meadow on the east side. The wind was howling across the pond, but I managed to find shelter behind a row of trees. Scanning over what was left of this year’s grasses and wildflowers, I could hear the tweets and chirps of several birds. The most abundant were Northern Cardinals and Dark-eyed Juncos. Further scanning of the area produced a lone Fox Sparrow feeding close to the ground. Having never managed a clear photograph of one of these birds, I was excited for the opportunity. Unfortunately, it never ventured far enough out of the thick cover for me to obtain an obstruction free shot.  

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Getting a clear shot of this Fox Sparrow was made difficult by the thick cover.

Dressed properly, I was quite comfortable despite the frigid temperatures and strong wind. Even with less than ideal conditions, I still enjoyed a productive day birding. It is important when faced with difficult conditions to always put the odds in your favour. Paying close attention to the conditions and my surroundings, combined with finding locations that provided food and shelter are what made made this outing successful and enjoyable. Keep these factors in mind when you go birding and I think you too will have similar success.

Good birding,






Waterfowl Numbers Increasing Across The Area

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Among the waterfowl observed was this male Bufflehead seen on the Thames River. This is a species that migrates to our area to spend the winter.

As fall migration continues, the variety of waterfowl observed throughout the London area increased this past week. In my travels, several species that both pass through and overwinter in the area were recorded on local bodies of water.

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Resident species like this male Mallard can be found throughout the area year round. Preening, as shown here, is a necessary task for waterfowl to keep their feathers waterproof.

Starting in the city on the Thames River, Common Mergansers and Buffleheads were seen in the section of river between Springbank Park and the forks. Mostly individual birds were present, easily distinguished from the resident Mallards and American Black Ducks.

At Fanshawe Lake, two Horned Grebes and a single Red-necked Grebe were visible from the roadway along the dam. Singles of both Greater Scaup and Bufflehead were observed farther out in the lake across from the docks at the rowing club. Further up the lake, two Tundra Swans were present. Looking in the river below the dam revealed several Mallards, but no notable migrants.

The sewage lagoons located in Port Stanley had good numbers of both Bufflehead and Ruddy Ducks in cell number one. A large flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls was seen floating at the far end of the cell, as well as three Tundra Swans. The Bonaparte’s Gulls and Buffleheads will most likely overwinter in the area, while the Ruddy Ducks and Tundra Swans have stopped to rest and feed before carrying on further south to their wintering grounds.

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This male Gadwall was among the waterfowl present at Dorchester Mill Pond.

Remembrance Day saw sunny skies and temperatures of sixteen degrees Celsius. After paying my respects to our veterans, I decided to head to Dorchester Mill Pond for an afternoon walk. Present were Canada Geese, a Pied-billed Grebe, Mallards and American Black Ducks. I was also treated to nice views of two Gadwall. The shallow, heavily vegetated pond provides perfect habitat for this species. There is enough current at the south end of Dorchester Mill Pond to prevent it from fully freezing during winter months. It is likely these ducks will spend the winter here, as Gadwalls have overwintered at Dorchester Mill Pond in the past.

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Female Gadwall at Dorchester Mill Pond.

With below seasonal temperatures along with west and northwest winds in the forecast for the next week, waterfowl numbers will likely increase further. To better your chances of observing these fall migrants, pay close attention along the Thames River and local ponds, as well as recently harvested farm fields where waterfowl will rest and feed.

Good birding,





Birding Brings Economic Benefit To Communites

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Various levels of government use birds and birders to increase revenue and boost the local economy. Could London, Ontario be missing out?

According to the most recent study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2006) 20% of Americans are identified as birders and contribute $36 billion to the U.S. economy. This trend is not confined to the United States as these numbers are proportionately consistent and rising worldwide.

Many national and provincial parks as well as municipalities are cashing in on birders. Money generating birding events and festivals take place in various locations throughout the year. For instance, Point Pelee schedules their Festival of Birds annually in early May, taking advantage of spring migration. This festival attracts 45,000  people to the area over a three week period, pumping thousands of dollars into the national park and local economy. The annual Hawkwatch located at Hawk Cliff in Port Stanley, Ontario attracts thousands of birders each September, maintaining the town’s economy long after the hoards of beach goers have vacated following Labour Day.

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Hawkwatch in Port Stanley, Ontario attracts thousands of birders to the area looking to view the many migrating raptors.

Granted, these two festivals have been operating for many years and have ideal geographic locations behind them, but why doesn’t London, Ontario attempt to attract more birders or have a festival? With seven public ESAs, Fanshawe Conservation Area, the Thames River and the many city parks along its banks, London has no shortage of bird habitat and birds. I believe the city is missing out on an excellent opportunity. With careful planning and promotion, birders would be attracted to London to see our beautiful nature and spend money while here.

Visiting all the fantastic birding locations in one day would be a stretch, so local hotels and restaurants would benefit. Retail sales would increase as the influx of birders visit our local shops and explore downtown. These nature enthusiasts could enjoy the nightlife by taking in a game or concert at Budweiser Gardens, a show at the Grand Theater or a drink at a local pub. This is a whole new demographic of tourist that is virtually untapped by the City of London.

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Reports of Red-throated Loons on the Thames River last February attracted birders from all over Southwestern Ontario and parts of the U.S.

Birders do an unbelievable job at spreading the word about great birding locations. With websites like eBird and others designed specifically for reporting bird sightings, news of rare or unusual sightings travels fast. As word spreads, birders quickly rush to these locations, often traveling hundreds of kilometers in hopes of seeing a new species for their life list.

This was apparent in London last February after I reported two Red-throated Loons on the Thames River. After news of these loons spread (the first reported sighting in Middlesex County since 1898) birding traffic along the Thames River greatly increased. The following day, the majority of people walking the Thames were birders, toting binoculars, spotting scopes, and digital cameras; all panning the river hoping to catch a glimpse of these rare loons. In speaking with fellow birders, where they were from often came up. People traveled from all over Southwestern Ontario and even crossed the border from the U.S. in search of these birds.

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Hooded Mergansers are commonly found and easily viewed on the Thames River during winter months.

For local birders, the wonderful waterfowl that frequents the Thames River during winter months is no secret. The river’s current prevents water from freezing in many sections, attracting several species of diving ducks. Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Canvasbacks, and Redheads are among the species observed during winter months. These ducks feed on fish and other aquatic life, making open water key to their survival. As northern lakes and areas of the Great lakes freeze, these birds move inland in search of food. Large concentrations of waterfowl are found in various sections of the Thames within the city. To view some of the beautiful waterfowl photographed on the Thames River, take a look at my gallery.

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Red-necked Grebes were present on the Thames River last winter. Open water is critical to their survival.

Winter would be the perfect time for London to host a birding festival highlighting waterfowl along the Thames River. With proper planning, promotion and time the economic benefit to our city could be huge. Birders in Ontario regularly flock to the shores of Lake Ontario in Burlington and Toronto, as well as the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers during winter months in search of waterfowl. Why isn’t London attempting to attract them here? In the case of a waterfowl festival on the Thames, two thirds of the equation is already solved. The river is here, the birds will be here; it is simply a matter of attracting more birders, specifically birders from outside London to visit.

Bird festivals not only generate revenue and boost local economies, they help preserve habitat. With established money generating festivals, governments place more priority into protecting and preserving the area in which they are held. Point Pelee National Park is a perfect example of this. A Thames River waterfowl festival would increase the use of our river in its natural state, having long term economic and environmental benefits for the city. Not only would the local economy see a nice boost, the Thames River would be appreciated for its nature, placing more focus on preserving it and less on developing it. Perhaps just the thing our city needs.

Good birding,