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These ducks are timeless harbingers of spring

For thousands of centuries, these bird have played with the melting edge of the ice, advancing and retreating with each late winter cold snap or windstorm, eventually succeeding in reaching their destination, outdoors columnist muses
20190410_Carden ducks (29)
These buffleheads were captured near Carden. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

Buffleheads and ringnecks. Goldeneyes and bluebills. Hoodies and woodies. These are the ducks of spring, the true and almost timeless harbingers of spring. The migrants. A source of joy to winter-weary birdwatchers.

We humans live in the middle of an avian Highway 400, a well-used north-south passageway that connects many species of birds from summer to winter and back again.

Biologists call these routes flyways and there are four that transect North America: the Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic.

Due to some lateral disturbance to the routes caused by the presence of the lower Great Lakes, we get to see a bit of mixing of both Mississippi and Atlantic travellers as they detour around the edges.

These birds, including ducks, geese, swans and mergansers, have been bobbing about in the Gulf of Mexico or in southern swamplands, biding their time until the northern ice melts.

As the planet tips toward the nearest star, the one we call Sun, the extra heat switches the water molecules from solid to liquid. This is important to these ducks as many species are in a group called divers, in that they do indeed dive deep to find their food; this becomes a challenge when there is a foot or two of ice on top of the lake, so they move south.

(Note: the 'woodie' mentioned in the opening paragraph is a nickname for the wood duck, which is not a diver, but the name worked in my alliteration list.)

As our lakes slowly thaw and openings are created wherever there is a bit of flow, that sliver of open water is like a magnet to these migrants. These openings also attract birdwatchers by the carload, desperate to observe something with feathers that isn't another blue jay or hairy woodpecker.

Most of the northern divers have a distinct black-and-white plumage, the trick is to see how the pattern shows both when in flight and while at rest. A good telescope or a large telephoto lens is required equipment for most diver viewing.

One species that is fairly easy to pick out is the bufflehead. They are relatively small and have a very distinct pattern of white on their heads and backs.

As you watch them they will dip below the surface then pop back up like cork as they search the lake bed for crayfish, zebra mussels and other crunchy delights.

The males have a largish head that is mainly bright white, and were first called buffalo heads by early biologists... the name now accepted is bufflehead.

Females and one-year-old males are grey with a white slash on their cheek. Most waterfowl mature in a single year, but bufflehead take their time and have a two-year maturing period.

Another field mark that may be seen as they land are their bright pink legs and feet. As they flare their white wings open and outstretch their feet for a landing, they look very much like a troupe of harlequin clowns setting down.

While many of these northern ducks are heading to the Hudson Bay lowlands to nest, a few, such as the bufflehead, are actually looking for hollow trees in the far boreal forest.

Tree cavities, both natural or previously excavated by woodpeckers, are where the eggs will be laid. While it may seem strange for a duck to nest inside a tree, there are actually a number of them that do so: wood ducks, hooded mergansers, redheads, and goldeneye. 

Another cool thing about bufflehead is that they return with the same mate to the same nesting tree year after year. This has been determined by capturing, banding, releasing, and then recapturing the birds.

Most ducks mate for a few weeks and the males then gather in groups to molt while the females do all the nest sitting and young rearing. Male buffleheads do this, except they return to the Missus after the new feathers have grown in.

I find it amusing that these birds have, for thousands of centuries, played with the melting edge of the ice, advancing and retreating with each late winter cold snap or windstorm, eventually succeeding in reaching their destination.

My amusement comes from the comparison of our human attempts to manipulate the lake ice, to break it apart for large ships to gain a week or two of travel time. This spring has seen three attempts by two nations to open a path in the Georgian Bay ice, all with no success. We are such an impatient lot.

There is but a two-week window of time to see these migrating ducks, so if you can find a vantage point to open water, make the time to have a look at the passing parade of waterfowl.