Birdwatching Canada

A voice for the northern birds

Ducks, Ducks & More Ducks

We love posting good news on this blog. When you’re dealing with wildlife and wild spaces, good news items are few and far between.

Today is one of the good days.

Northern pintail male and female ducks

Northern pintail male and female ducks

The Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey samples more than two million square miles of waterfowl habitat across the United States, Canada, and Alaska. The survey estimates the number of ducks on the continent’s primary nesting grounds.

Songbirds are declining around the world, but our North American waterfowl population remains healthy. Not only are the numbers up from last year’s survey, but the total population numbers in the millions are very heartening. As long as prairie potholes, marshes and lakes are preserved, waterfowl of all kinds should have a promising future. You can’t say that for many wild species these days.

Highlights from the survey include:

  • The estimated mallard population is 8.5 million birds, a 10 percent increase over last year’s estimate of 7.7 million birds and 13 percent above the long-term average.
  • The estimated population of 3.1 million gadwall is similar to last year’s estimate and 73 percent above the long-term average.
  • At 7.4 million, the estimated population size of blue-winged teal is the second highest on record, while green-winged teal numbers were at an all-time high of 3.4 million. Estimates for both species are well above their long-term averages (60 percent and 79 percent, respectively).
  • The 3.2 million estimate for northern pintails is 23 percent more than last year but 20 percent below the long-term average.
  • The estimated number of one million redheads is similar to last year and is 62 percent above the long-term average.
  • The canvasback estimate of 662,000 is 35 percent more than last year’s estimate and similar to the long-term average.
  • The estimated abundance of northern shovelers (4.4 million) is 25 percent more than last year and 92 percent above the long-term average.
  • The scaup (lesser and greater combined), estimate of 4.2 million, is 12 percent greater than last year but 18 percent below the long-term average.
  • Population estimates for American black ducks, ring-necked ducks, American wigeon, bufflehead, goldeneyes, and mergansers are similar to last year as well as their 1990-2008 averages.

The entire Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, 1955-2009 report can be downloaded from the US Fish & Wildlife website.


Filed under: Waterfowl, , ,

Canada’s Day – Canada’s Bird

Can you name Canada’s National Bird? You may get a clue from our coins!

Our national bird is the Common Loon, which also explains our loonies and toonies that the world loves to laugh about. And before you ask, no a baby loon is not called a loonie (or twins called toonies). Baby loons are simply called chicks, just like other waterfowl babies.

Common Loons have striking red eyes, black heads and necks, and white striping, checkering, and spotting on their backs. As well as being Canada’s national bird, they are also the provincial bird of Ontario.

Common Loon on nest

Common Loon on nest

Loons are one of the most aquatic of birds. Their legs are placed so far back on their bodies they have extreme difficulty walking on land, and were named for their clumsy, awkward appearance on dry ground.

Also known as Great Northern Divers, Common Loons swim underwater to catch fish, propelling themselves with the feet. They swallow most of their prey underwater. They have sharp, rearward-pointing projections on the roof of their mouth and tongue that help them keep a firm hold on slippery fish.

Loons can dive more than 200 feet (61 meters) below the surface of the water in search of food, and are Canada’s deepest diving bird. They can stay underwater for nearly a minute.

Their unusual cries are distinct to individuals and can be heard at great distances. Loon cries are most prevalent during breeding season as pairs aggressively defend their territories. The eerie yodel of the Common Loon is a true symbol of wild Canada.

Filed under: Waterfowl, , ,

Calling All Loon Watchers

Bird Studies Canada is looking for your help.


Bird Studies Canada photo

Anyone who has listened to their wild call echoing across a tranquil northern lake can appreciate how the Common Loon has become a much-loved wilderness symbol. The loon has a special place in the hearts of many lakeside residents and visitors, and is deeply missed in its absence.

The Canadian Lakes Loon Survey was first initiated in Ontario in 1981 to assess the long-term health and productivity of Common Loons, and the lakes they depend on. Loons breed on lakes throughout most of Canada, and as top predators, their survival reflects broader lake health. Each year, hundreds of volunteer participants spend time observing loons on lakes where they breed in Canada: at least once in June (for loon pairs), once in July (for newly hatched chicks), and once in August (for young that survive to fledge). This information is used to monitor loon chick survival over time, and is an important indicator of loon and lake health.

Contact Information:

Canadian Lakes Loon Survey
Bird Studies Canada
P.O. Box 160, 115 Front Street
Port Rowan, ON N0E 1M0
Ph. 1-888-448-2473 ext. 212
Fax: 1-519-586-3532


Filed under: Waterfowl, , ,

Now That’s A Nest Site!

I was taking a birding drive on the weekend out to a large shallow lake which is filled with puddle ducks in the spring. Across the road from this lake is a landscaping company, and in preparation for their big season, they have a huge pile of wood chips to be used for mulch.

Scanning the sky for the peregrine falcon that usually hangs out around the lake, I burst out laughing when I saw a Canada Goose playing king of the castle on top of this 50+ foot high pile. Closer inspection revealed another goose sitting just below the king.  Neither of them moved during the hour or so we were there, so I can only surmise these misguided birds were sitting on a nest.

When you think about it, these eggs should hatch in record time. Heat from the parents’ body on top, and heat from the mulch pile below should really speed things up. Maybe not so misguided after all. It’s not like there’s a scarcity of nesting sites close by with a lake across the road.

King-of-the-hill Canada Geese

King-of-the-hill Canada Geese

Sky high goose nest

Sky high goose nest


Filed under: Waterfowl, , ,

Whooper Alert

Growing up in northern Alberta, I distinctly remember flocks of whooping cranes passing over our house. It was a normal as the sun setting. Little did we know what the future held for these huge, whooping birds.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

The whooping crane was designated as an Endangered Species in Canada in 1978. Low population numbers, loss of habitat, slow reproductive potential and questions about the stability of their winter range combined to drastically reduce the population. From a record low of less than 20 birds, protection and management programs have slowly increased the crane population.

At the end of March and early April, whooping cranes who have spent the winter in Texas begin migrating north to their breeding grounds in western Canada. Twice each year the birds make the 4,023 km (2,500 mi) journey up and down North America.

The only natural nesting habitat for these huge birds is Wood Buffalo National Park, a 16,895 km² wetland complex in the boreal forests of northern Alberta and southwestern Northwest Territories.

This past winter has been a particularly hard one for the whooping cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Reserve in Texas. Wildlife managers are worried that some of the cranes may be too weak and malnourished to successfully make their return to Canada this season.

Drought has affected the flock that spends each winter on the Texas Gulf Coast. The birds have had trouble finding food because low water levels have decreased the number of blue crabs, which make up 85 percent of their diet. Reserve staff have set up 13 deer feeders with corn, prohibited crab fishing in and around the refuge, and conducted controlled burns to produce new green plants.

Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane coordinator, said some of the birds, which are part of the only naturally occurring population of whooping cranes in the world, could die during the return trip to Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park because they are so weak and malnourished. Most of the birds will begin the trip in early April.

The flock had a record number of 270 when it arrived last fall. Six adults and 15 chicks had died as of March 15, leaving the flock at 249.

Returning whoopers have already been spotted on their way north in Nebraska this month, and bird watchers along the Central Flyway are on full alert for more sightings.

If you’re in their migration range keep an eye out for these huge white birds. North America’s largest wading bird, they stand up to  4.9 ft (1.5 m) tall, and weigh  13-15 lb (6-7 kg). In flight, their black wing tips are visible, the neck is extended and their long legs extend beyond their tail. Their wingspan measures 6.5 ft (2 m).

Whooping crane in flight

Whooping crane in flight

If you see a Whooping Crane, please report your sighting to the Whooping Crane Conservation Association

Photo credits: Brian Johns, Geoff Holroyd, Environment Canada


Filed under: Migration, Waterfowl, , ,

Goose Overload

What would you think is the most common bird in Canada? If you guessed Canada goose, you would at least be in the correct family!

According to Environment Canada, our snow goose population now stands at over 4.5 million breeding birds, and has tripled over the past 20 years. While it’s nice to see a large, healthy population of any wild creature, these birds are actually eating themselves out of a home.

Snow geese flock

Snow geese flock

The fragile sub-Arctic and Arctic ecosystem where they nest in the summer cannot sustain this many geese. Some coastal salt marsh habitats have been severely degraded already. The geese feed by pulling grasses up by the roots, stripping the ground bare. This leads to erosion, increased evaporation of soil moisture, and an increase in soil salinity that prevents re-growth of vegetation.

There is evidence the birds are now moving inland to feed, threatening other ecosystems such as fresh water wetlands. Due to intense competition for food, thousands of goslings starve to death or die from disease each year.

Several factors appear to have contributed to the huge snow geese population. On their twice-yearly migrations, they eat a rich and plentiful diet of agricultural crops like winter wheat, rice and corn. This readily available food has likely increased survival rates. Warmer temperatures due to climate change in the Arctic may have increased the survival rate of the young birds each spring.

Now authorities are faced with a unique conservation situation. In the past, the snow goose population was low, and hunting quotas were reduced. Management decisions aimed at protecting the geese worked  – maybe too well.

So yes, it is wonderful to read about a conservation success, in this case it may be more of a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario. Although I suspect Arctic foxes are happy about the way things are, as adult snow geese, eggs and young birds feature prominently on their menu.


The Edmonton Nature Club is promoting the Snow Goose Chase, a guided tour to pre-scouted birding locations to view snow geese, swans, cranes, eagles and many more species. The tour of central Alberta takes place April 25 & 26/09, and pre-registration is required. For more details, contact The Edmonton Nature Club, 19 Woodlake Road, Sherwood Park, AB. T8A 4B3 Phone (780) 464-5814.

For more details, contact them at


Filed under: Birdwatching Events, Waterfowl, ,

Gull Acrobatics

Well I’m a happy camper today. Bird watching yesterday gave me my first look at returning gulls. Granted, they were too high for me to make a species identification, but they were definitely gulls. And right on schedule. As I live next to the Bow River in Calgary, Alberta, I’ve been tracking their return dates for many years. With very little variation, they return every March between the 11th and the 15th.

Their numbers will gradually increase on the river, with much squawking and squabbling. If things proceed as they have the past few years, in a couple of weeks there will be hundreds of them, and then they partake of a strange ritual that has intrigued me every year.  Starting around dusk, huge groups will start circling over a particular area, calling all the while. Multiple circles rise, then drop down but continue to circle for hours. Their loud noise generally forces nearby home owners to grab their earplugs, as the birds keep this up until the wee hours of the morning.

Ring-billed gull

Ring-billed gull

I’ve been down there birdwatching at 3:00 am, watching circles and circles of hundreds of white birds going round and round in a black sky. I eventually decided it was far easier to just lay down on the ground and watch that way. Not to mention you don’t get dizzy when lying down.

These birds are noisy! More than once during my nocturnal birdwatching I’ve seen men in their housecoats & slippers walk over to see what the commotion was about.  And forget about sleeping with any open windows.

This gull ‘festival’ goes on for a couple of weeks, then as quickly as it started, it’s over and things are quiet again. I’ve checked with many experienced birders regarding this event, and most are as puzzled as I am. One hypothesis though, makes a lot of sense. It was suggested the returning birds are re-forming pair or group bonds after their long migration in the spring. Once the flock cohesion has been established, they then fly away to various breeding locations. This could also explain all the different circles, instead of there being just one big one.

It is most definitely an unusual birdwatching experience, but a sure sign of spring for me.


Filed under: Waterfowl, ,

Brant Goose Festival

Brant goose

Brant goose

After a cold, snowy, winter most of us are chomping at the bit to get out there and start birding in comfort again. If you’re thinking of a holiday, there’s no better place to be this month than on Vancouver Island, BC.

The Brant Wildlife Festival celebrates nature, particularly the return of Brant geese as they rest and feed on British Columbia shores before flying to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. The early part of the festival coincides with the dramatic herring spawn event, which attracts huge numbers of birds to parts of the east Vancouver Island shoreline. The festival’s many events, include wildlife viewing, marsh walks, nature photography, Big Day birding, eagle release, and Voices of Nature concert.

The 2009 festival runs from March 6 to April 26 in Parksville, Qualicum Beach and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. More details at their website.


Filed under: Birdwatching Events, Waterfowl, , ,


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