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Goldeneyes, Scaup and Industrial Grit

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I spent a couple of days recently in New York, one of my objectives being to do some winter birding. Not surprisingly, Lake Erie was frozen solid. It's a shallow lake, and it freezes pretty quickly. In a winter like this, everything seems to have frozen over. Me included.

Ice several feet thick puts an unequivocal damper on lakeshore birding. There was nothing around for miles and miles. A quick search of eBird, though, revealed that there were some interesting things happening around Dunkirk Harbor. Only a warm-water outlet could explain that. I made my way along the jumbled frozen lakefront toward three tall stacks belching smoke and steam. That was where the birds would be.

And sure enough, a coal-fired power plant was warming the water sufficiently to open part of it to fish, ducks, and gulls. Local birders I spoke with said that the plant was operating at only a fraction of capacity, and that there's normally much  more open water than I saw. Never having been here, I was all agog.


A pair of mallards flies past containers in the harbor, the male's green head glowing Kryptonite. 

Common goldeneye drakes were feeling frisky despite the extreme cold (it was about 7 degrees, with a wind chill of I don't want to know). These two are performing head throws, which nicely spotlight their shining white cheek discs. To the right is a drake greater scaup.

More greater scaup, a drake (top) and two hens. See how the white stripe goes down into the primary wing feathers, almost to the tip? Lesser scaup have white only in the secondaries, so only the inner half of the wing has white. Here's a hen lesser scaup from last winter's Virginia trip. Half a wing stripe. It's obvious in flight, and it's the easiest way to tell them apart at a glance.

Here's a close view of a drake greater scaup (white-winged scoter in back!)  The unequivocal green gloss on its smooth round head is a good field mark for this species. Lesser scaup are more delicate, with thinner, longer-looking necks. Instead of being smoothly rounded, their heads are peaked like Daffy Duck's, with a purple sheen. The sleeping brown duck in the foreground is a female greater scaup.

Even closer. The greater scaup has a broad blue bill, with a large black "nail" on its tip. Lesser scaup's bill is narrower, and the nail is smaller. These may seem subjective, but when you've got a greater scaup, you just know it. 

I love this image of greater scaup scudding by smokestacks. Dunkirk Harbor is a gritty place, and the burgeoning bird life is a sharp contrast to aging stacks, container ships, and the piles of coal around the old power plant. 

The scaup floated in vast rafts, along with thousands of common mergansers, mixed flocks of red-breasted and hooded mergansers, canvasback, redheads, goldeneye, bufflehead, and white-winged scoters.


All around swirled thousands upon thousands of gulls, mostly herring and great black-backed. 

In the warmed waters of the harbor, the triangular dorsal fins of thousands of shad roiled and tossed. I'm not sure what was going on, but it was a shad event to be sure. 

And wherever thousands of any life form gather closely together, death follows. Dead shad floated all around. The gulls hauled them up onto the ice to carve them up.

It was a macabre cafe, a gull cafeteria. Nearly every bird had its own frozen fish to pick at. The gulls were doing very well here, reaping the abundance of death. 

And under the piers, the buffleheads slept with Brother Canvasback*.

*thanks to Hap in Minnesota and Bottomland Mud for chimping me! 


Hi Julie,
I know my eyes are getting older
and weaker, but that duck with
the red head sleeping among all
the Buffleheads sure looks like
a Canvasback. Any other photos
of that particular bird? Thanks
for keeping the blog going, I
have enjoyed it for years!
Hap in New Hope (MN).

Posted by Anonymous February 16, 2014 at 8:59 PM

Hey, a gull's gotta eat! I think of them as the vultures of the waterways: they perform the important function of getting rid of the dead bodies before they start decomposing and smelling, but they do so in a much more noisy and annoying manner than actual vultures. I'll give you that....

Posted by Anonymous February 17, 2014 at 3:41 AM

The abundance of death--once again, you've turned a poetic phrase.
Not that I am surprised, mind.

Okay okay okay! I'll try harder to figure out whether I'm looking at greater or lesser scaups when I see them on Fresh Pond.

Did an obligatory up and back to Maine on Saturday. Spying buffleheads in Wiscasset harbor was a bonus.


Posted by KH Macomber February 18, 2014 at 5:45 AM

Things were good in Muskegon, Michigan these last few weeks, too. I got some awesome duck pictures with my little Nikon. If you're curious, my username on Flickr is C_perugiae. I swear I'm not spamming- I just really love diving ducks!

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