Ducks This Winter

I’ve been following some of the birdwatching blogs this winter.  Initially I didn’t expect to see much activity, but not really knowing anything about birds, I thought I would look at the postings of a neighborhood birder.  To my surprise, and I think to the surprise of  birders (there are those who observe birds that don’t like the connotation of “silliness” that comes with the term birdwatching; see the things you can learn), there have been ample and interesting birds for the hardiest birders to observe.  Most of the birds present along the Lake are water birds, mostly ducks.  Most of those are what is called diving ducks.  These are ducks that get their food by thediving to the bottom.  There is another category of ducks called dabblers–a fine word,  but I am already taken by the colorful language used to classify the divers: Mergansers, Common and Red-breasted; Scoters, Back and White-winged; Scaups, Greater and Lesser; Common Goldeneye, Redhead, Bufflehead, Canvasback, Long-tail and Mallards. I could go on also about Gulls, but for the uninitiated it would be too much and for those of you who  are true birders, it is all pretty basic.  Suffice to say I am an enthusiast and a recent convert; there is nothing worse!  This winter these birds are showing up in the Chicago area because much of Lake Michigan has been iced-in.  The ice cover has forced the ducks to move farther south to find patches of open water.  Even at its iciest, Lake Michigan had open water out in the middle.  The middle is very deep and not suitable for diving ducks.  They have thus hugged our shore looking for small areas of open water and diving for fish and crustaceans, mostly mussels. 

Three million ducks migrate through the Great Lakes watershed every year.  The Lake Michigan shoreline is an important flyway.  These ducks, however, stay all winter and then will return farther north for breeding.  Sadly, in some of the harbors in Chicago, there has been some duck death.  Several people have speculated as to why.  Perhaps they were poisoned by lead fishing sinkers.  Perhaps the mussels have accumulated too many toxins and the duck, being higher on the food chain, concentrated them even more.  Perhaps they starved to death or their feet got caught in the ice as it solidified.  Right now, it is not known.  Happily there has not been any obvious duck mortality off of Loyola Beach.  Alternatively the peregrine falcon pair at Loyola University could have taken the weaker ducks and we just don’t see the corpse.

On a less gruesome note, it is one of the great gifts of this winter to be able to go out and see this large and varied duck population.  While you are at it you could look at some gulls.  Don’t disparage gulls, they were once down to only two populations in the State.  If you don’t know what you are looking at, please visit these websites, they have great pictures and interesting anecdotes about birding in Chicago.  And at least weekly, there is someone who comes to Loyola.    (Look under field observations) (Click on the most recent date in the calendar halfway down the page)

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