Late Winter Ducks

Canvasback Duck.jpg
Fish Pond, Hall Rd., Kelowna, BC.

Kelowna is a wonderful location for people who love waterfowl, especially ducks. You can read all about ’em in Parts 3, 4, and 5 of my 2016 highlights —just click the Ducks tab in the menu to the right (and down a bit) of this post…. Most of the quackers (actually, most of them don’t quack, but that’s too fine a point right now!) in those posts are spring and summer residents. A few stay all year ’round, or most of it anyway. This post is dedicated to the ones who are most prominent in late winter / early spring, including a species that seems to be popping up in many new spots around BC in 2017, the Canvasback. Until this year, I’d seen them only at a distance. It was a great joy to find them close to home in a pond where photographing them is reasonably easy.

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Canvasback pair, Hall Road Fish Pond.

Canvasback range Cornell
Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology describes the species: “A large diving duck, the Canvasback breeds in prairie potholes and winters on ocean bays. Its sloping profile distinguishes it from other ducks.” In coloration, it’s similar to the Redhead (a close cousin of the Eurasian Pochard), which has a round head. Both species, especially in winter, can be found in sizeable flocks or rafts on fairly large bodies of water.

While Canvasbacks are found in all regions west of Atlantic Canada, they can be a challenge to find and get close to.

Cornell offers a couple of interesting facts about CANVs. The second one I find really amazing!

  • The species name of the Canvasback, Aythya valisineria, comes from Vallisneria americana, or wild celery, whose winter buds and rhizomes are its preferred food during the nonbreeding period.
  • The oldest recorded Canvasback was a male and at least 22 years, 7 months old when he was shot in California in 1991. He had been banded in the same state in 1969.

So glad to have these guys around for more than three weeks 2017.

For comparison purposes, here’s some images of Redheads from 2015 and 2016. You can see that the similarities and differences are about equally balanced. Click images to enlarge.

I discovered the Canvasbacks at a kids’ fishing pond beside Hall Road when I went there to observe Buffleheads. I’d seen BUFFs there the previous two late winters where they are confined sufficiently to let a photographer get close…. While the CANVs were a great bonus, I wasn’t disappointed by the wee ones, either.

Bufflehead drake dark.jpg
On a cloudy day, he looks black and white with a hint of colour…. Hall Rd. Fish Pond.
Bufflehead drake
On a brighter day, we get a very different impression!

Click on any of the images below to enlarge it.

From Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, some interesting (I think!) facts about these delightful little ducks:

  • The Bufflehead nests almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.
  • Unlike most ducks, the Bufflehead is mostly monogamous, often remaining with the same mate for several years. 
  • Bufflehead fossils from the late Pleistocene (about 500,000 years ago) have been found in Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Texas, and Washington. One California fossil that resembles a modern Bufflehead dates to the late Pliocene, two million years ago. 
  • Bufflehead normally live only in North America, but in winter they occasionally show up elsewhere, including Kamchatka, Japan, Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles, Belgium, France, Finland, and Czechoslovakia. In some of these cases, the birds may have escaped from captivity.
  • The oldest Bufflehead on record was at least 18 years and 8 months old. It was caught and re-released by a bird bander in New York in 1975.

One more group that we see mainly in the winter and that leaves us around the same time the Canvasbacks return are the Goldeneyes, both Common and Barrows. You’ll find images and further information on Common Goldeneys, near the bottom of this post: Waterfowl Part 3. Here are some photos from  2017: Click on any photo to enlarge them all.

Thanks to Cornell, again, for these fascinating facts about COGOs….

  • Hunters dubbed the Common Goldeneye the “whistler” for the distinctive whistling sound of its wings in flight. Cold weather accentuates the sound.
  • A female Common Goldeneye often lays eggs in the nest of another female, especially in nest boxes. She may lay in the nests of other species of ducks as well. Common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes lay in each other’s nests, and Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers often lay in the goldeneye’s nest too.
  • Like Wood Ducks, Common Goldeneyes readily use nest boxes as a stand-in for naturally occurring tree cavities. Some return to the same box year after year.
  • Goldeneye chicks leave the nest just one day after they hatch. The first step can be a doozy, with nests placed in tree cavities up to 40 feet high. As the female stands at the base of the tree and calls, the downy chicks jump from the nest hole one after the other and tumble to the ground. 
  • After the ducklings leave the nest they can feed themselves and require only protection. Some females abandon their broods soon after hatching, and the young will join another female’s brood. Such mixed broods, known as “creches,” may also occur when a female loses some ducklings after a territorial fight with another female. Young scatter and mix when females fight, and not all of them get back to their mother when the fight ends. Some or all of the ducklings may be transferred to one brood, usually that of the territory owner.
  • The eyes of a Common Goldeneye are gray-brown at hatching. They turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue as they age. By five months of age they have become clear pale green-yellow. The eyes will be bright yellow in adult males and pale yellow to white in females.
  • In winter and early spring, male Common Goldeneyes perform a complex series of courtship displays* that includes up to 14 moves with names like “masthead,” “bowsprit,” and “head throw kick,” in which the male bends his head back to touch his rump, then thrusts forward and kicks up water with his feet. *I hope to cover this in future posts….
  • The oldest known Common Goldeneye was a male, and at least 20 years, 5 months based. He was banded and found in Minnesota.

Look for Spring mergansers and Barrows Goldeneyes in a post coming soon….

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