Sunday, February 09, 2014

Cold Weather Consequences

White-winged Scoter
It's been a long cold winter, much worse than last year, and we have weeks to go before we can expect any permanent change. For us, it means days off school for the children, and dangerous driving conditions for the rest of us. But as long as we have power, we can endure and life goes on pretty much like always. I try to keep the feeders filled in my backyard, although it's hard to keep up with the ravenous appetites of the Starlings who seem to be my most frequent visitors.
Last week when the sun was out, I went birding for Snow Buntings, and mentioned to a friend that I'd like to add the Long-tailed duck to my life list. This morning, when we got home from church, I found a message from him that the ducks were at Ashland Park near the Falls of the Ohio in Indiana right then. I quickly changed into warm birding clothes and sped across the river (using the bridge, of course). Well, I "saw" two Long-tail ducks waaay out in the middle of the river. Using another person's good Swarovski scope, I saw some white on their heads, but mostly, they were just duck-shaped blobs to me. Think I'll keep looking before adding this one to my life list.
Common Goldeneye
The Common Goldeneyes were a little closer to shore, and I had a good time watching them. The light wasn't very good though, and they look gray in this photo instead of the shining white of a live bird on the water. I think this guy is practicing some moves on his girlfriend.

White-winged Scoter
This winter we have been seeing White-winged Scoters on the river. Today I ran into Brainard Palmer-Ball, the top birder I know. I remember birders getting really excited to see one of these in previous years, and I asked Brainard, "Aren't these supposed to be rare birds?" He replied that until this year, he'd only seen 3 White-winged Scoters around here in his long birding career. Yet this month, he and another birder counted 116 of them in one day!
Surf Scoter (orange bill)
He said he was heading upstream a few miles to see if he could find a Surf Scoter again, so I went that way too. After finding a place to park, and carefully crossing River Road in traffic, I tramped through the snow following a group of scoters as they floated downstream. Brainard said the Surf Scoter has white on the back of his head and an orange bill. Sure enough, there was ONE Surf Scoter floating with all the others. LIFE BIRD!
When I got home, I started doing some research. Isn't the Internet wonderful? If I'd tried to do something like this 20 years ago at the library, I never would have found this much information! Scoters and the Long-tails all breed far, far to the north, and winter along the coasts, or around the Great Lakes. These are all diving birds, rather than dabblers like Mallards. Rarely diving in water that exceeds 30 feet deep, Surf Scoters forage in the zone of breaking waves, and habitually dive through foaming wave crests. Hundreds of thousands winter in the coastal waters off British Columbia alone, and 200,000 scoters could consume about 43 tons of mussel meat daily.  So what in the world are they doing on the Ohio River?
Google to the rescue again. Are the Great Lakes freezing in 2014? Yes indeed! Look at this satellite photo of the Great Lakes. In fact, the Great Lakes may set a record for ice cover this year. Lake Superior is 92 percent frozen on the surface, breaking a 20-year-old record of 91 percent set on Feb. 5, 1994. So that may partly explain why we are getting so many unusual water birds this winter around here. When the water froze, and their food sources disappeared, they just took off and headed south looking for open water, and the Ohio River was the first open water they found.

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