December 3-9, 2018 (Week 49 of 52): Tremendous Numbers of Ducks Overwinter on the Great Lakes and Niagara River

A little-known natural phenomenon associated with the Buffalo-Niagara Region is the tremendous concentration of ducks that overwinter on the Great Lakes and Niagara River. In fact, our Region serves as one of the most important water­fowl wintering areas in the northeastern United States, especially for diving ducks. Already, early in December, thousands of diving ducks (e.g., canvasback, scaup, common goldeneye, common merganser) and over 300 tundra swans have arrived here from Canada and Midwest Prairie Potholes. Most will spend the winter in our Region. Their ranks will swell to tens-of-thousands later this month, as the majority of wintering ducks typically arrives during December. Total numbers may exceed 100,000 ducks in January and February. For example, a February 2, 2017 winter waterfowl survey from shoreline observation points conducted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) documented the presence of >110,000 ducks along the Buffalo Waterfront and Upper Niagara River.

Waterfowl are attracted to the Great Lakes and Niagara River during winter months by the extensive areas of open water (i.e., unfrozen) and abundant food resources, both plant and animal. The following species feed mostly on aquatic plants such as eel-grass: canvasback, redhead, and tundra swan. Crustaceans such as crayfish are the primary prey of common goldeneye and long-tailed duck. The following species feed mostly on mollusks such as mussels and aquatic snails: greater and lesser scaup, bufflehead, and white-winged scoter. Common and red-breasted mergansers feed primarily on fish.

The Buffalo Waterfront (both inside and outside the breakwalls) typically supports large and compact rafts (i.e., flocks of ducks floating together) of diving ducks, especially early in the winter before Lake Erie freezes. Rafts of thousands (sometimes tens-of-thousands) of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, and common merganser have been recorded there. Such rafts can often be observed from public viewing areas such as Gallagher Beach State Park, Buffalo Harbor State Park, Erie Basin Marina, and LaSalle Park.

Extensive areas of open water attract large rafts of ducks to the Niagara River throughout the winter, especially when ice forms on Lake Erie and (occasionally) Lake Ontario. Assuming Lake Erie will freeze this winter, as it usually does, large numbers of ducks will move from there to the open waters of the Niagara River creating even more impressive concentrations. The critical open water and food resources provided by the Niagara River for overwintering waterfowl and other waterbirds is a significant reason why the River is listed as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.

Large rafts (thousands and sometimes tens-of-thousands) of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, and common merganser can often be seen on the Upper Niagara River during winter months. Fruitful public viewing areas include Aqua Lane Park, Beaver Island State Park, Buckhorn Island State Park, LaSalle Waterfront Park in Niagara Falls, Niagara Falls State Park, and waterfowl overlooks along the Robert Moses Parkway upstream of the falls. Watch for migrant tundra swans that frequently congregate along the upper Niagara River, especially offshore from Beaver Island and Buckhorn Island State Parks and upstream of Niagara Falls. On the Canadian side, pull-offs along the Niagara Parkway between Fort Erie and Niagara Falls offer excellent waterfowl viewing opportunities.

It is well worth a winter visit to Goat Island (within Niagara Falls State Park) to view a particularly amazing feat performed daily by common goldeneye. Scan the rapids above Niagara Falls and you will see individual goldeneye maneuver the rapids, both on and below the water surface, as they forage for crayfish and other prey. How they avoid being dashed against the rocks in those turbulent waters is a wonder! They often come to the surface right above the brink of the falls just to fly back upstream to repeat the performance.

The Lower Niagara River typically supports medium to large rafts (hundreds and sometimes >1,000) of common goldeneye, white-winged scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser. When winds gust across Lake Ontario, many more ducks enter the Lower River, upstream to Lewiston and farther. Valuable public viewing areas include the Lewiston Landing Waterfront Park, Joseph Davis State Park boat launch, and Fort Niagara State Park.

The Lewiston Reservoir, which typically freezes by early to mid-January, occasionally serves an important migratory feeding and resting area in late fall and early winter for greater and lesser scaup, as well as canvasback. Rafts of >5,000 scaup and >2,000 canvasback have been recorded there. Viewing areas are limited mostly to Reservoir State Park.

Lake Ontario does not freeze in a typical winter, although shore ice may extend well out into the lake (i.e., 0.5 mile or more) during the dead of winter. Large numbers (hundreds and sometimes >1,000) of the following species can be observed from shoreline overlooks: common goldeneye, white-winged scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser. Occasional common loons, red-throated loons, and red-necked grebes may also be seen. It is noteworthy that very large rafts of long-tailed ducks and white-winged scoters often occur well offshore in Lake Ontario, out of sight and beyond NYSDEC survey limits. In addition to scoping out rafts of ducks at various waterfowl concentration areas, some birders choose a good overlook along the Lake Ontario shore (e.g., Wilson-Tuscarora State Park, Wilson Public Pier, Krull Park, and Golden Hill State Park) to observe flights of waterfowl and other waterbirds traveling east and west, close to shore, over an hour or more. Remarkable numbers of the birds listed above can be observed in this manner.

Extensive open water and an abundance of prey attracts other birds to the Great Lakes and Niagara River. Snowy owls frequently feed on ducks and other waterbirds concentrated close to shore. Bald eagles do the same, and also hunt and scavenge fish where open water is found. A few great blue herons and belted kingfishers, two species that mostly leave our Region in winter, can often be found foraging for fish and other prey in these productive habitats. Considering this abundance and diversity of birdlife, open water areas of the Great Lakes and Niagara River can be exciting places to visit during winter months.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:32 AM/4:41 PM EST (9 Hours, 1 Minutes)
  • 6 Hours, 12 minutes of daylight shorter than at Summer Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 39.1° F  Normal Low Temperature: 27.1° F
  • Lake effect snow is forecast for this week.

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo was 43°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) was 43°F as of December 5, 2018.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools is continuing to rise in response to recent precipitation and greatly reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, the water level in many ponds is continuing to rise.
  • Most streams will exhibit moderate flow levels this week.

Fungi:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks extinguished most fungal fruiting bodies. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems (thus known as a killing frost). The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.
  • Broad-leaf and narrow-leaf cattail fruits are disintegrating, releasing thousands of tiny fluffy seeds to the wind.

Wildflowers:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant wildflower stems (thus known as a killing frost). Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • While a few northern red and pin oak trees continue to retain some leaves, most dropped them following the hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks.
  • Many American beech leaves remain clinging to limbs but have now changed to brown. Some beech trees will hold their leaves the rest of the winter.
  • The availability of hard and soft mast is noticeably less abundant now as squirrels, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and other wildlife have consumed a large amount over the past several weeks.
  • Several native trees, shrubs, and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: winterberry, cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, swamp rose, and wild grape.
  • In addition, two non-native species provide fruit (soft mast) consumed by wildlife: multiflora rose and common buckthorn.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.

Fish:

  • Many species of fish have moved into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, smallmouth bass and schools of yellow perch.
  • Steelhead continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Brown trout continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. In headwater streams, where brown trout have been stocked, they typically spawn a little later than brook trout. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • With cold temperatures across the Buffalo-Niagara Region three weeks ago, most of our inland lakes and ponds were frozen. The ice cover drove most dabbling ducks (e.g., mallard, wood duck, American wigeon) and Canada geese south, out of our Region. Many of those that remained, primarily mallards and Canada geese, relocated to open waters of the Niagara River and Great Lakes.
  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with additional arrivals of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for migrant tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • Bonaparte’s gull numbers will continue to build in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species typically reaches its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s, little, black-headed, California, Iceland, lesser black-backed, Glaucous, Sabine’s, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers will over-winter.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The following “short-distance” migrant songbirds are passing through on their journey south or over-wintering in our region: brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, American tree sparrow, and pine siskin.
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to arrive in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Most eastern bluebirds, American robins, eastern meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, and summer resident sparrows have now left the Region for southern climes.
  • While most American robins have migrated south, small to medium sized flocks may still be encountered.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will over-winter in our region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
  • Most eastern chipmunks have now entered a state of torpor. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively gather and store acorns and other mast for winter. Similarly, red squirrels form middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • Watch bird feeders after dark for nocturnal visits by southern flying squirrels.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers cut more trees this time of year, in preparation for winter. They will cut, transport, and cache cut branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding.
  • Beavers are also actively building and repairing dams and lodges at this time.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) have molted from brown to white pelage for winter months.
  • Continue to watch for white-tailed deer buck rubs. Bucks actively rub saplings and small trees, depositing scent from forehead glands.
  • Bucks will continue to make scrapes by pawing away leaves to expose soil, then urinating over the scraped area to deposit scent from tarsal glands. They typically mouth and rub their antlers on an overhanging branch, depositing even more scent.
  • Deer courtship (the “rut”) continues this week. Does become more active as they start estrus and bucks are often seen following them. As a result, the frequency of deer-car collisions increases sharply during the rut, from mid-October through December.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, typically have mostly entered carnivorous lethargy by now. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

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