Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ducks: the Undead

Hopefully this is the last of my "Lake Ontario Ice" series... Over the past 5-6 days there has been some big swings in ice formation/loss, form and structure... The start of the period saw ever increasing (and thickening) ice stuck along the shoreline... I was starting to think it may not leave until things began melting, but a wicked WNW finally broke it free and sent it packing... 

Over the following days we went from solid/tick ice, open water, slush, new/thin lake ice, broken (almost pancake like) ice, open water, more thin lake ice, to fully open water once again. The ducks and gulls adjusted accordingly, and the birding was different with each passing day. In between new lake ice and pancake ice was a day with fairly steady NE winds, slowly breaking away at the offshore edge... Any small pockets inside the ice was packed with ducks, while the edge was steadily patrolled by eagles and gulls. 

Above image: the NE wind morning. New/thin lake ice with scattered (small) open pockets. Further out is open water.... It was on this morning that I witnessed one of the strangest ice/duck related events at any point in these past two (freakin cold) winters... I had the camera ready, and am now able to tell the tale through my images!

You'll have to excuse the poor quality of the images.... Introducing the star of the show - this Long-tailed Duck (we'll call him Steve). Steve is one of those Long-tailed Ducks that decide to land on the solid/slick ice and sit around hopelessly. I have recently began to wonder if ducks like Steve are simply freezing to death and/or going delirious due to the extreme cold. Steve clearly has access to open water within a few feet, and there should be no shortage of food (zebra mussels) in the west end of Lake Ontario... Yet Steve sits on the ice... 

Unfortunately Steve has attracted the attention of a Bald Eagle... I immediately begin to wonder what sort of evasive action he will employ to escape this large and dangerous predator. Take flight and run? Scramble for the open water and dive? Fight back? ... 

If you chose "flail around on the ice uselessly", you have chosen correctly. This awkward flapping occurred for a few seconds as the eagle actually landed BESIDE the duck, before taking flight once more and landing directly on top. 

With a horrible display of survivorship, it is no surprise that this has occurred. I watch the Eagle for a few seconds before turning by gaze elsewhere. I've seen this part of the movie before... With upwards of 5-6 Bald Eagles cursing around the lake, there is no shortage of snacking going on out there.. 

If anything, I was surprised to see the Eagle LEAVING only a few minutes later. I would have thought a Long-tailed Duck would provide a better snack then that!!! Note the surviving White-winged Scoter - in the WATER... 

Within 30 second another Eagle decided to fly over and investigate the leftovers. I can't help but think (once again) that these birds are LAZY when it comes to hunting, but I guess it works for them... The new Eagle swoops down for the easy meal, and then it happend!!!

Steve raises his head!!! AHH!!!! ZOMBIE DUCK!!!!!!!!!

Even the Eagle was scared, swooping upwards and hovering overhead..... Zommmmbiieeessssss!

Doing the only logical move, Eagle 2 lands beside the undead Steve to investigate before making any further moves. It was at this moment that I began to understand the brilliance of this predator-defence unfolding before my eyes... 

Zombie Steve plays this to it's fullest effect... He once again flails around on the ice, wings beating - hardly moving - and presumably screaming "ZOMBIE DUCK!!! OOoooOOoOOOOooOoo... Don't eat me!!! I'm zombie duck!!!" 

If you've ever heard that people who exude confidence are likely to succeed, zombie Steve is the poster boy for such thoughts. After a rousing display, he throughly breaks the will and confidence of Eagle 2 by promptly FALLING ASLEEP... No more than 2 feet away from his towering predatory foe. 

After spending a few minutes contemplating life, Eagle 2 is left with no choice but to fly away and search for undead ducks in their appropriate habitat of open water (see image below). 

I felt privileged to watch such a remarkable display, potentially one that has never been fully documented before... This single Long-tailed Duck decided that cheating death would not be enough, but truly transcended the situation and became death itself. As the human onlooker, I now need to decide how best to publish the events I have witnessed and documented (beyond the blog, of course). Will it be in the Auk? The Condor? The Wilson Journal? Check back later for an update, but I can tell you right now it won't be the Canadian Field Naturalist... 

Turning back to reality, I wonder what other excitement will occur on the Lake before we finally start to see warmer temps? I had my first migrant American Crow's on the 2nd, and weather forecasts are hinting that we may start to see temperatures closer to the freezing mark over the next two weeks. The magic of migration will be moving at a rapid pace before we know it... NOAA has shown us around 88-89% ice cover on the Great Lakes over the past few days, and I think the night of the 2nd-3rd (before I wrote this) may be one of our last good chances for ice buildup on Lake Ontario for the winter! Bring on the birds!

1 comment:

  1. I was in the hamilton today for some work and I stopped at the little park east of your condo and watched a Great Black-backed Gull drown an adult Surf Scoter, a pretty gruesome scene! The scoter dove once but the gull followed him on the surface and finished it when he surfaced.