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waterfowl

grouse-9

We’re nearing the end of August, which means the short northern summer is waning. Still, it’s been warm; hot even, on some days. Recently, a few nights were cool and by morning there was extensive fog. Before noon, the fog was burnt off.

Looking back, the non-sledding season was a book of contrasts. Late April and early May started off dry, but soon the rains came. And came. It rained a lot in June and July and while August hasn’t been quite as wet, rains have still been a feature of the weekly weather. It’s also been a warm summer (summer warm, winter cold; who’d have guessed?) and with all the rain, it’s been humid. As such, the biting insects (mosquitoes, black flies and various species of tabanids [e.g., deer flies and what we call ankle biters]) have been out in force all summer. The flies are still making a pest of themselves.

With all the rain, water levels rose during the summer and the once-promising crop of wild rice was drowned out.

It’s also been a pretty wet year over much of the Canadian prairies, although overall, conditions in the continental west were, apparently, drier (at least to begin with, just like here) and for ducks, habitat conditions ‘deteriorated’. Still, according to Ducks Unlimited, “duck numbers in the survey area are statistically similar to last year and remain steady”.

When I first started heading west to hunt, sometime in the 1980’s, it was, in the words of some former colleagues, “drier than a popcorn fart”.  Duck populations were close to or at all-time lows.

That was back in the days when we were all worried about a new ice age. Then, global warming hysteria took over and the models have been predicting “hotter and drier”. However, rains and snows have instead steadily recharged the prairie potholes over the past couple of decades and despite continued ditching and draining (burning, too), duck populations have surged.

According to DU:

“Total populations were estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average. Last year’s estimate was 49.5 million birds. The projected mallard fall flight index is 13.5 million birds, similar to the 2015 estimate of 13.8 million.”

On another note, I’ve seen some decent sized flocks of ruffed grouse of late, so maybe there’s been good brood survival despite the wet. Good thing it wasn’t ‘cold’.

And despite what some of the local game agencies have been saying, I don’t think it’s going to be much of a deer hunt this fall. Yesterday, Lil and I were out picking blueberries – still some good berries on the bushes, but not for long – and didn’t see a single deer track. A few years ago the areas we were in had deer aplenty. So while last winter was relatively mild, wolf numbers remain high (a situation the Provincial wolf scientist has acknowledged) and have no doubt continued to put downward pressure on the deer population.

And neither Lil nor I drew the single adult moose tag available in the Wildlife Management Unit we like to hunt. Out of curiosity, we checked out a tiny bit of our favourite ‘moose spot’ yesterday and did see sign of at least three different moose. Oh well, maybe next year.

Meanwhile, I’m off to the North American Moose Conference in Brandon, Manitoba in a couple of weeks. I’ll be doing a presentation there and then soon after that, will be off on a fly-in moose hunt in northern Manitoba.

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.

Canada-1

The aggressive gander beats off the resident gander. Aggressor goose on the nest.

For several years a pair of geese, not always the same ones, have nested on our pond in front of the house and raised young. The last few years the number of young successfully hatched and fledged has been declining. Last year, the number of goslings hatched was small (three?) and the geese and goslings did not hang around long, like they had in years past. But this year was not good at all; actually, it was by far the worst.

Things started off normal enough. The geese came early, like they usually do, with ice still on the pond. As the ice started to melt, a pair took over the pond and chose a patch of cattails to build their nest. After a few days, a cold snap hit and the pond, which had quite a lot of open water, completely froze over once again. One night, tracks in the snow on the ice indicated a fox had successfully predated on the nest and ate all the eggs. This was in early April.

The geese hung around; then left, then returned and decided to try nesting again. Several sites were examined, but in the end, they chose the same spot they had first nested. We can’t be completely sure, but Lil and I are quite confident it was the same pair. She had the new nest built and was laying eggs once again by the third week of April.

All was going well until May 11. On that day, another pair of geese, noticeably larger than the nesting pair, flew into the pond. As usual, the gander displayed aggression to them, but unlike other geese that had tried to visit the pond, these ones refused to leave. As the day wore on, the ‘new’ geese became quite bold and started to move in on the nesting female. Despite their best, at times combined efforts, the resident goose and gander could not get the aggressors to leave.

With evening approaching, the goose back on her nest and the gander guarding, the aggressor geese moved right in. A lot of fighting and honking and what not took place. Eventually, the aggressor geese took over the nest and would not let the owners of the nest back on. More fighting occurred and a lot of too and fro, but as night fell, the aggressors were still in possession of the nest. At times, the female aggressor could be seen sitting on the nest.

The next morning, the geese were still fighting. Finally – I’m not really sure what happened – the eggs (it looked like there had been four) were gone and the nest more or less destroyed. Both pairs of geese remained on the pond most of the day, occasionally yelling at one another. Tufts of down from the destroyed nest were scattered about, attesting to the intensity of the battle.

The next morning, the pair that had been nesting was still on the pond, moping, it seemed; occasionally, they’d swim by what had once (twice) been their nest. The aggressor pair of geese were not to be seen. Then around noon, honking loudly, the pair that were still on the pond flew across its full length and left.

We’re not sure why this happened. Interestingly, the aggressor geese were not very afraid of us – in fact, they were much less bothered by our presence than were the pair that had been on the pond for over a month and had interacted with at least one of us on a daily basis. Lil thinks maybe the aggressors had nested on our pond in the past, or had been raised there, and knew us. Maybe they too had lost their nest, and had decided to come to a pond they were familiar with to try and re-nest, but found the territory to be taken.

At any rate, the whole thing was fascinating, but also quite sad. For the first time in many years, it looks like no Canada geese will be hatched out on our pond.

Addendum: The geese that lost their nest came back this evening. Now what happens?

woodie-6

Compared to the last couple of years, spring came early this year. Not real early, maybe just a bit earlier than normal, although April was below average in terms of temperature. El Nino has apparently dissipated and the Pacific Ocean is cooling down, so one is to assume weather patterns will move back towards ‘normal’, whatever that is.

Whatever, it’s dry now as there has not been much rain, although some is forecast in the days ahead. Most of Canada from the Great Lakes west to the mountains is dry; forest fires, including the big one at Fort Mac, are breaking out all over. There’s a lot of talk that it’s part of the climate change thing, and it might be related, but the boreal forest is a fire-dependent ecosystem and huge and frequent fires in the boreal have been the norm for thousands of years.

People who are fixated on forest fires these days don’t seem to pay attention to the fact that cities and towns and other infrastructure has been growing at a fast pace in Canada’s north over the past few decades; the population of Canada in 1965 was 18 million; it’s now double that. Lots more infrastructure to burn now than there was not long ago.

Regardless, a dry spring in western Canada might mean a good hatch of grouse and other upland game birds and, where I live, maybe a great hatch and fall flight of ducks and geese. Dry and more ducks and geese may seem to be counter-intuitive, but in much of the boreal, like where I live, there’s no lack of water. A dry spring and summer will mean lower water levels and marshlands that are actually more productive than the norm (and especially when compared to a cool and wet summer). Plus it could and should translate into a bumper crop of wild rice. Northwestern Ontario has superb wetlands that can be dominated by wild rice, but wild rice does best when water levels fall during the summer. Many years our area gets cool, wet weather in June and July, which raises water levels and drowns out the wild rice beds.

Wild rice is not only sought after by local waterfowl, it’s a great attractant for migrating flocks. It’s also picked for commercial purposes, but only Aboriginals are allowed to harvest it (no racism here).

Locally, there seems to be a lot of ducks and geese around these days. On our pond, there’s a pair of Canada gee with a nest (actually, they’re re-nesting; they lost their first nest to a fox) and I suspect there’s a mallard nest somewhere, possibly a hooded merganser and I’m hoping a wood duck. All those ducks (males and females) are on the pond every day, and usually the males are there most of the day. Green-winged teal and blue-winged teal have been visiting as well, as have a few ring-necked ducks. Ringnecks have brought off a brood on the pond in the past, as have mallards, woodies, hoodies and of course the geese, which have successfully hatched out goslings for many years now. The more the merrier.

Plus, there are several (at least three) ruffed grouse drumming within earshot of the deck. And grouse overall in the area seem to be numerous, based on my recent travels in the forest.

The downside of dry – and it’s a big one – is the heightened risk of forest fire. It’s a risk one takes when living in the woods in a fire-prone ecosystem.

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.

lynxed-1

The internet continues to be problematic, not giving me reliable access since the end of July. I’m planning on giving MA Bell the boot and switching over to Xplorenet, but apparently that will have to wait until sometime in October or November. That’s when either a new satellite or more bandwidth becomes available. Until then, I’ve been told, it’s not worth switching, as there are so many internet satellite users already in our area that service is S-L-O-W. Better slow than not at all, but I’m thinking what’s another month or so after all this aggravation? So I’ll wait.

Meanwhile, there have been a lot of things going on in my neck of the woods with respect to wildlife world.

Let’s start with the two Canada goose goslings Lil received from people earlier this spring. Both were orphans, from different broods, and both were only a few days old when she received them. Lil has raised goslings before, with mixed results. Some grew up and integrated and eventually left with wild birds, but others did not and ultimately fell to predation when they insisted on staying ‘home’.

These two grew up and imprinted on a goose decoy, or as Lil called it, their dummy mummy. Unfortunately, this year wild geese seldom visited our beaver pond, and the pair that nested on the pond left with their three young shortly after they hatched. They did not return. The end result was that the orphan goslings stuck around the front of the pond, mostly on the lawn with dummy mummy and seldom ventured out on the water.

One morning not long ago Lil checked on the goslings, as she did every morning, and announced one was missing. After a search, she was pretty sure a predator had gotten it, as she found a pile of feathers.

Later in the afternoon she asked if I’d go with her to the other side of the pond as she had a feeling she’d find the remains. So I went with her and sure enough we found the remains of the missing goose.

But first we saw a lynx. After the lynx snuck off, we looked around and saw that it had buried what it didn’t eat.

The next morning the other goose was gone.

Then, the next morning, the lynx was lying on the open rock on the far side of the pond, close to where we had seen it when it had absconded with the first gosling. Perhaps it was to gloat, or maybe to give thanks.

Strange.

 

rg-1

It was another hot and humid day yesterday, and raining again today. Lots of rain this year, although no huge deluge, like in some years. But a lot of rain. Lake levels are up, ponds and marshes are brimming. The forest is lush.

Sometimes early summer rains wreak havoc with small game like ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare. The prevailing thoughts are that the rains result in hypothermia, and too much moisture can mean a lot of biting insects and other factors which result in poor offspring survival. This is especially true if the timing of the rains coincide with birthing dates and especially if the rains are coincident with cold.

Fortunately, the heaviest rains seemed to have been late enough to get many of the wee creatures into their second or so week of life, and weren’t associated with undue cold. Plus, after several years when the mosquitoes in particular seemed to be worse with each year passing, this year saw a dramatic fall in mosquito abundance. Oh, there were still mosquitoes, but this year I didn’t need to wear a bug net when I went outside at dawn or dusk, like I had to last year. And the numerous dragonflies seem to be keeping the lid on the deer and horse flies, which I really appreciate.

It is always difficult to foretell what’s happened with respect to reproductive success of all the creatures out in the forest, but based on a number of observations, many species appear to have had good reproductive success. I’ve seen several broods of ruffed grouse and numerous small snowshoe hares. Lots of young Canada geese, who seem to have bred early as the young are already starting to fly, which is about two weeks earlier than in some past years. I’ve also seem broods of wood ducks, ring-necks and of course, mallards.

Other species – the non-game variety – also seem to have had a good year of reproduction. Tree swallows, barn swallows and cliff swallows all seemed to bring off young. In the recent past, some years have been complete failures for the local swallows. In general, the passerines (or dickie birds) seem to have had a good year. Around the house and flitting over the pond, there are numerous eastern kingbirds, cedar waxwings and American goldfinches. I’ve also seen some young of the year ruby-throated hummingbirds over the last couple of days.

And it’s been a good year for some frogs and garter snakes. Leopard frogs seem to be everywhere, which is great, as for many years they were scarce and seemed to be headed towards oblivion. Lots of tiny spring peepers too. But I haven’t seen any small toads – last year and the year before they were numerous – and we haven’t even heard many adults trilling. Same goes for the tree frogs, although there were some adults singing earlier in the year.

Friends of mine – biologists who had a special interest in herptiles (reptiles and amphibians) – say we actually don’t know much about herptile population dynamics and what the main drivers are. It seems populations go through inexplicable ups and downs, and not in a cyclical fashion like many other species.

That’s my quick mid-summer update on the status of the local small fauna. I’ll try to get back to some more controversial topics in the weeks ahead, but summer is a time to relax, and enjoy the heat. It won’t last long.