Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ice birds vs Ice Coverage: The Great Lakes

7-8am this morning

I awoke this morning to a spectacular sight from my condo - a frozen Lake Ontario! Spectacular cold seems to do little in freezing the lake, which was quite evident last winter. Instead, it is light winds and high pressure (along with some freakin cold air) that are the requirements for some clear/smooth new lake ice.

For two winters now we have been blasted with arctic air and have watched the bird-life adjust accordingly. I am thankful to watch the ebb and flow of weather from my condo, where I am safe from the elements - yet it's not the same for our feathers friends. This morning I watched the swarms of Long-tailed (and other) ducks fly in every which way across the smooth (hard) ice surface, only occasionally landing and huddling into groups before flushing with the next passing gull.

The Canadian Ice Service updated their graphics at 5pm this evening, and revealed exactly what I had observed - a mostly frozen lake. Which was repeated elsewhere.

Image; Red and gray are virtually solid.
Spectacular coverage on the three easternmost Great Lakes. Lake Superior is rapidly freezing, while Lake Michigan has extensive buildup along most shorelines. (Below)


Last winter we watched as birds struggled with the harsh conditions. Come March, birds (especially Red-breasted Mergansers) seemed to be struggling everywhere we looked. There has been a lot of chatter about "freeze out" birds, and my personal opinion has been that a few of these birds are truly being "frozen out" from their wintering grounds, while the majority we later into March are returning migrants - depleting their fat supplies only to find inhabitable situations when they return here. This isn't a post to debate the two sides - but a handful of Red-necked Grebes have started appearing in unusual locations... Perhaps a sign of things to come. 

While the record-breaking cold of this past week along with the associated ice-up is likely to effect our birds, I was surprised to see that, on this exact week last year - we actually had similar coverage of ice throughout the Great Lakes. I can only expect much of the coverage on Lake Ontario will breakup by Thursday with strong WNW winds in the forecast. Therefore things may end up being roughly the same.

(Not taking into account the big freeze up last night) 

So all of this information leads me to one obvious question. Where are the ice birds? Thanks to a pair of epic irruptions these past winters, I  have quickly learned that solid lake-ice is my golden ticket to a Snowy Owl (or three)... As things ice up, I also expect to see a dramatic rise in Glaucous Gulls. Both of these things have happened recently. Therefore I am now expecting something "else" to happen, and I don't think I'm out of line in this hope/request. 

I want a Gyrfalcon gawd dammit. 

And with little hesitation, I would trade that for any manner of Ross's or Ivory Gull. These are the grail ice-birds beyond question - and it seems perfectly logical to expect them once the Lake suddenly freezes over - right? 

Ok, I guess not. I am actually inclined to believe that there is no reason what-so-ever to expect these birds, simply because we are experiencing cold and/or snowy weather. If anything, that may well be reason NOT to expect them. Having studied the patter/occurrence of unusual birds in relation to weather for years now, I can say with some small amount of confidence that these beauties are not hindered in any way by cold temperatures or snowfall. They occur a LONG ways away from my little condo, and conditions where THEY live have to be something special/unique to even consider bringing them to our area. 

Take my beloved Ivory Gull for instance. The closest an one has been to my place in recent times was 2010 when an adult was photo'd in Toronto. That year saw RECORD LOW sea ice in Atlantic (and North-eastern) Canada. An abnormally cold winter in 2014-2015 may well be creating a fantastical Ivory Gull Paradise offshore of Labrador - providing no reason what-so-ever for them to leave!

So what is a condo-birder to do? Thankfully birding never fails to excite, and 2014-2015 has seen a moderate irruption of Gyrfalcons into eastern North America with sightings near Kingston, Ottawa, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, New York State (2+), New Hampshire and elsewhere. One of the most recent was actually on the south shore of Lake Ontario - hardly a short-gyrfalcon-ish throw (flap?) from my condo... These birds may well be "around" for factors totally unrelated to our cold weather (or ice buildup on the Great Lakes). I do not know the reasons they've arrived, but I am excited that they are. As the ice appears, I hope a Gyrfalcon will follow...

1 comment:

  1. Non stop blasts of cold air!

    Extreme Cold Warning in effect for:

    City of Hamilton
    Temperatures are expected to drop to near or below minus 20 Celsius tonight. The cold temperatures will combine with strong northwesterly winds to produce wind chill values near or below minus 30 by Thursday morning. Little improvement is expected through the day on Thursday, with daytime highs only a few degrees higher than the overnight low temperatures, and winds forecast to become increasingly gusty.

    Very cold wind chill values are likely to persist through Friday, then improve somewhat on Saturday.