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migration

shoveler-2

The other day I looked out on the pond and there were two ducks sitting on a log beside a drake mallard. They had a lot of white on them and at first I thought they might be domestic mallards from a nearby farm. But they weren’t.

I had to run upstairs to get a bird book as I didn’t recognize the birds, having never seen this particular species before in full breeding plumage. So another new species recorded on our pond! They were, by the way, northern shovelers, a duck that’s apparently abundant during the breeding season in the prairies, the Yukon and Alaska.

Although Kenora is only a couple of hundred kilometers for the eastern edge of the prairie ecosystem, we don’t see a lot of what is in that biome, or only rarely.So It was great to see the shovelers, even though they didn’t hang around for too long. My bird guide indicates they migrate through and breed in the area, but I haven’t met anyone who has ever run across a nest or a young brood of shovelers here. I’ve met people who have seen theme here on occassion, mostly in the spring.

They do resemble a mallard, except for a bit more white and the extended, black bill that sort of looks like it was squashed in an early stage of development with a hammer.

Given its large, spatula shaped bill – some refer to them as ‘spoonbills’ – it didn’t surprise me when I read that it “has the most unusual feeding habits of any duck.”  If has a fondness for phytoplankton as well as zooplankton, sometimes feeding on the surface in deep water in lakes devoid of aquatic vegetation. To strain for plankton, water is ingested at the tip of the bill then jetted out at the base. Given it likes plankton, it’s no wonder they are known to gather in large numbers on sewage lagoons. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they aren’t exactly held in high esteem as table fare . . .

There’s not a lot of plankton in our pond, especially at this time of year, but there is a lot of insect life, the likes of which makes up about a quarter of the shovelers diet. As animal life is high in protein, it makes sense this species might stop in at our pond for a quick, nutritious meal before moving on. Seeing these birds were on our pond in late May, it’s likely they were drakes that had abandoned their mates; drake shovelers leave their mates as early as the first day she begins to incubate, although some stick it out until the eggs are hatched. In nearby Manitoba, shovelers usually commence nesting in early May.

By the way, the sora rails have also returned to the pond. Hopefully the summer and fall will bring some other species I haven’t yet seen from the deck. I’ll keep you posted.

mallard-1

Spring is on its way, although the dreaded ‘Polar Vortex’ descended upon us last night, bring the temperatures well into the freezing zone. We also got a skiff of snow. Temperatures are supposed to stay cold for the next few days, but it looks like things will be on the cool side at least for 10 days or so, if you believe the weather forecast. After three days out, I think weather forecasting starts to enter the realm of science fiction . .  .

Regardless, it’s been a mild winter, which was welcome after the last two winters I can only describe as dreadful. There’s still ice on the lakes and some snow in the bush, but the sun has strength, the days are longer than the night and all in all things are looking up.

A few species of migratory birds have stated to show up, but not a lot. Crows, herring gulls, Canada geese and a smattering of robins have been spotted, along with some mallards, hooded mergansers and goldeneye ducks. The big rush should start soon.

But already there have been a few interesting observations. One is a crow that sits in the trees in our yard that coos like a pigeon. It’s the weirdest thing. Lil says it was here last year, too, and must have picked up the cooing habit from the pigeons which frequent our place.

The other neat thing we saw (Lil saw it first) is a mallard with a mostly white head (that’s it in the photo). It’s a bit grainy, as it was quite a distance away when I saw it and had to really crop the photo tightly so as to get a clear view. It’s obviously a  drake mallard (and there were a number of mallards with it and in close proximity), but for some reason the normally green head is mostly white. As the eye is dark and the rest of the bird appears to be a normal colour, it doesn’t appear to me to be a case of albinism. Maybe it had a sickness, or other near-death experience and the shock of it all caused it’s head of feathers to turn white. Or maybe it’s very old . . .

Actually, the mallard is likely to be suffering from leucism, or leukism, an abnormal plumage condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents pigment, particularly melanin, from being properly deposited on feathers. No idea why it affected only the head, nor do I have a clue as to what might have caused the genetic mutation.

Regardless, colour variation is quite common in the animal world and white – or black – birds and animals aren’t all that uncommon. Still, it’s always interesting to see anomalies and speculate as to the cause.

If we see anything else that’s unusual, I’ll let you know.