White-Winged Scoter

Red-Necked Grebe

Winter is thankfully coming to a close here in central Ohio, but it’s not gone yet.  The lower-than-normal temperatures have resulted in frozen bodies of water, even into the beginning of March.  One side effect of this is to make for a definite concentration of waterfowl in those few areas of open water that can still be found.

This didn’t just effect the local area- the Great Lakes have largely frozen over this winter, too.

Now, add waterfowl migration into the mix, and you have a potentially interesting situation.  Much of the water that waterfowl migrants use is not currently available.  This means there is a higher chance of seeing rare birds in the few water areas available.

And that’s what has happened with two particular species this winter.  Luckily, I’ve spotted both- and they were life-list birds for me.

eBird has a brief story on this event:

Species on the move: White-winged Scoter & Red-necked Grebe

…the winter of 2013-2014 has seen a parade of arctic systems move across North America, bringing cold temperatures well outside of recent averages. These have triggered facultative movements as species are literally frozen out of the north and eBirders are contributing greatly to our understanding of the species and patterns involved. In mid-January 2014, it became apparent that White-winged Scoter and Red-necked Grebe were on the move, popping up at lakes, rivers, and ponds in most of the eastern U.S. Some coastal areas also have seen a noticeable increase and it seems clear that the movements of these birds are directly connected to the higher-than-normal ice cover on the Great Lakes.

Of course when I say I’ve seen a ‘rare’ waterfowl species, I mean rare for inland Ohio (Lake Erie has a better chance of seeing such birds of course).  These birds may be common where some people live, but they’re big news here!

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Back in December, a sharp-eyed birder spotted a small group of ducks at Griggs Reservoir, which hadn’t frozen over yet.

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Spotting his post on the Ohio Birds listserv, I went down to the reservoir and sure enough, there were 4 female White-Winged Scoters near a bridge.  Unfortunately the weather was overcast and the ducks were out in the middle of the reservoir, making good photography difficult.

White-Winged Scoters, according to All About Birds:

A large black duck of coastal waters, the White-winged Scoter breeds farther inland than the other two scoter species and is the one most likely to appear inland on lakes and rivers during migration.

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I like this photo because I was thinking, ‘I wonder if that guy walking by realizes he’ll probably never see that species again!’  I was happy to see them, that’s for sure.

This is mainly a coastal bird, but there are smaller populations living on the eastern Great Lakes, most likely taking advantage of the abundant and invasive Zebra Mussel for easy meals.

The other bird I saw earlier this week at O’Shaughnessy Reservoir next to the dam.  It’s early March, but lots of water is still frozen over.

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Above the dam, there was only a small area of open water suitable for diving ducks.  And this area hosted another rare bird for a few days.

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This bird seems to have a seagull audience as it dove for fish.  This was one of the easiest life-list birds I’ve seen- I didn’t even have to get out of my car to identify it!

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This is a Red-Necked Grebe; once again, from All About Birds:

The Red-necked Grebe breeds on small inland lakes in Canada and Alaska, and winters along both coasts of North America. Boldly marked, vocal, and aggressive during the breeding season, it is quiet and subtly attired in winter.

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This handsome bird is developing its breeding plumage- the black and white mask, and the red neck.  Notice the robust beak that’s good for snapping up fish- it’s the most prominent beak on a Grebe that appears in Ohio.

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This bird was rather tame, not minding having 4 birders photographing it from relatively close range.  And the sunny day helped!  Interestingly enough, this bird only migrates at night (though this isn’t uncommon in the bird world).

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Perhaps the most interesting fact about this species is that it ingests quantities of its own feathers.  This may help protect its digestive system from hard objects such as bones and spines from the fish it eats.  It even feeds feathers to its young!

Even though the winter has been long and arduous here in Ohio, seeing these birds has been a pleasant byproduct of all of that frozen water.