Category Archives: Widgeon

Brant Time

The arrow in the photo below points at the roof of our house, just above the white house on the hillside. From there we can see, with the help of a spotting scope, that the black brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) are on the far shore of the bay.

They come here every spring to rest and feed and gather their strength.

We drove around the bay to the beach where the brant are congregating. A friend had told us that the day before, there were many more, and we think some may have left already on their long migration to the north to nest.

Here they are, sitting at the edge of the water in a place where they can see danger approaching from land or the water.

They come from as far away as the Baja coast of Mexico, and will go all the way up the continent to Alaska where summer daylight hours are very long and the food is plentiful for raising their young in the short weeks of summer, so they will be ready to make the long migration back south in the fall, to winter in Mexico again.Here, in one of many staging areas on the east coast of Vancouver Island, they gather at first in small flocks, gradually joining up into bigger flocks as they are closer to leaving for the north.

I’ve often wondered how they decide when it is time for the flocks of thousands to lift off and begin the journey. Who says, “Okay folks, it’s time for liftoff”? Looks like plenty of discussion going on here. The widgeon in the background are being kept out of the loop. See them in the background with their pale heads?

Notice that these geese are similar to the Canada goose but they don’t have the white cheek patches or the long necks. If you saw them side by side you’d see they are quite different.

If you go walking on the beaches at this time of year, please be sure to keep your dog on a leash. When the brant are disturbed repeatedly, it prevents them from feeding. They need daylight hours and low tides to feed on the eel grass they prefer above most other food. If they can’t feed, their bodies will not have the reserves they need for the long flight ahead. Emaciated birds don’t have healthy clutches and this results in weaker young and lower numbers of brant.

You can do your bit to help keep the brant population healthy. Keep your dogs on a leash at brant time.

The Estuary

Between  Comox and Courtenay, the road runs along the estuary. I always see at least one interesting thing when I pass by there.  It is a place where many species thrive, and a refuge for them when the weather is extreme. 124

From Comox Bay, boats sometimes (not often) come partway up the river. In old times they might have been going to the ways to be hauled out, or they might be going to the small government wharf in Courtenay. The Town of Comox has the much bigger facility, with easier access from the Strait of Georgia. Markers and pilings in the river mouth help to guide boats along the deeper river channels. Many a boat has run aground here, for lack of better navigation aids.

123

Birdlife is everywhere. Here are two kinds of ducks.  I’m ashamed to admit that a long time ago, I thought all ducks were brown and their ducklings were always yellow.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. Duck plumage is as varied as that of other bird species.

Drake mallards are immediately identified by their green heads, but look more closely and you’ll see other markers. Yellow bills, chestnut breast feathers, a hint of a white collar on the neck, beige sides, darker brown on top, dark blue wing speculum outlined by white bars. Flashy little devils, aren’t they? Their wives are dull for camouflaged safety when nesting, but in spite of the boring mottled brown, they do have the same dark blue wing speculum bordered in white. Oh, and notice the bright orange of the feet. Both male and female have these cool boots.

Beyond the mallards a flock of widgeons are milling around. Again, the drakes are the flashy ones with their white head stripe and black and white rump feathers. A slash of white under the wing takes the boredom out of the brown body colour. The hen widgeons, again, are dull, dull, dull. And in this case, neither drakes nor hens have those cool booties like the mallards have. The widgeon boots are a more modest greeny-gray.

I find it interesting that the two kinds of ducks are together here and yet they are keeping to their own groupings by species.

Most likely they are here in the estuary because there is snow on the fields just now. Usually, the widgeons visit grain fields where they are like lawnmowers when a group of them get together, nipping the tops of the grass. A new planting of grain can be devastated by a huge flock of widgeon grazing for a few hours.

The mallards, on the other hand, will forage for other things. They don’t mind eating rotten potatoes left in the field, or kernels of corn left behind. If they are hungry enough, you might see mallards snacking on a rotten salmon on the shore, something that is beneath the dignity of the widgeon.116

But see (below) who has moved in from the frozen fields and the mist of the last blog post. The Canada geese!

And if you look closely, in the distance, you’ll see another visitor, sitting on a branch on the island in the estuary (maybe click to enlarge the photo). He’s watching for anything edible, be it fish or fowl. The bald eagle seems to sit a lot, but his “eagle eye” is watching for any sick or crippled ducks that would be easy pickings. Barring that, there may be a careless fish in the shallows. You never know what might wash up. Just now it is a hard time for eagles. The spawned out salmon  are almost gone and it is a bit early for the herring to show up. But they are always on the lookout for an easy meal.

128

The estuary is full of life.You never know what you’ll see but there is always something of interest.

 

Cold Duck

??????????

The east coast of Vancouver Island is unique with its many large estuaries that hold thousands of wintering waterfowl. Because of our usually temperate climate, the birds fare well, as they have access to open water and abundant food.

Traditionally these birds would have fed on estuarial native plants and mollusks available at low tide, and in extreme hard times, the carcasses of rotting salmon. With modern agricultural practices, the birds’ preferred food has been the crops grown in the fields near the estuaries: potatoes, silage grass, and corn. With such a smorgasbord why go anywhere else?060a

Winter is a wonderful time to observe these large flocks feeding and preening, as they are in full nuptual plumage.

Normally you would see a duck or two dabbling around in the water, hidden by the trees and shrubs, but with the unusually cold weather that has moved in this year, the pools are more like ice rinks, and ducks don’t like skating. 003

This puddle is no good for splashing in today.

038

The ducks in these fields are mostly widgeon. They’re restless, sensing an approaching cold front, and wondering where to settle down for the afternoon.

007

As many as a thousand widgeons grazed in a tight formation that soon denuded the grassy patch they were working on. They flew up and circled on my approach. The farmer might have been grateful for my intervention. The grass he planted for silage for his cows is being cropped just a bit too much to allow it to grow well after such a hard clipping by hundreds of duck bills. If the ducks were more spread out, the damage would not be as significant, but they like to sit close together at the dinner table as they munch a swath through the field.

Heavy snow clouds advance relentlessly. I will never understand how such dark gray clouds can hold white fluffy snow.

050

It is late afternoon and the widgeons need to think about safety for the night. They are safer on the water, but so much of it is frozen.
057

They find some patches of open water where they can dabble for grit and wet their whistles. Yes, the water is a bit salty but it is a river estuary –  fresh water with just enough ocean water to keep it from freezing over completely. There’s safety in numbers and they certainly do have that. They’ll huddle together through the night and tomorrow it’s back to the feeding fields. Let’s hope they aren’t covered with snow.

056