Monday, January 8, 2018

A mass of mergansers

Last Saturday, I made my umpteenth million trip to Lake Erie, that great water body that sits about two hours to my north. The lake is an irresistible draw, especially for one who is deeply into birds. Of the 420+ species that have been found in Ohio to date, well over 400 have occurred along Lake Erie.

Many of my excursions to our 4th largest Great Lake (by far the smallest, by water volume) have been in winter. Conditions can be brutal, but if you're willing to tough it out, the rewards are often great. I had no doubt that this day, January 6, would be a bit nippy. At one point on the drive up, near Lodi, the mercury registered - (minus!) 11 F!

By the time I arrived at Miller Park, in the shadow of the big power plant at Avon Lake, it had warmed to 5 F. Offsetting that warming trend were strong icy winds blasting across frozen Lake Erie from the north. Warm water outflows from the plant always keep a big patch of water from freezing, and winter birding is always interesting at this spot. Unfortunately, insofar as photography went, the copious puffs and tendrils of steam resulting from the clash between "warm" water and cold air precluded much in the way of shooting birds.

No matter, I spent two hours at the end of the pier watching the avian show. Lots of the true feathered tough guys gamboled about as if on a Floridian spring break. Herring gulls were abundant, having usurped the ring-billed gull's normal rank as commonest gull, as is always the case when true winter sets in. Lots of giant great black-backed gulls were about, looking nearly eaglesque from afar. A few ghostly arctic larids made the scene, a pair of glaucous gulls and an Iceland gull. There were scores of mergansers, both common and red-breasted, and many common goldeneyes. The latter is sometimes known as "whistler" due to the distinctive quavering sound produced by their wings in flight - a sound I was treated to on several occasions. As nearly always, a rogue American coot was toughing it out - world's toughest rail!

When it gets as cold as it's been, fantastic ice formations develop. This hunter's blind at Lorain Harbor is encased in frozen water, and large windrows of ice can be seen on Lake Erie in the backdrop.

In my last post, I wrote about birds' adaptability to cold. These Canada geese demonstrate winter hardiness. As soon as I walked onto the pier at Miller Park, I was struck by the spectacle of these ice-covered geese lolling about, resting and snoozing. It was 5 F and windy when I made this photo. The geese illustrate the supreme insulating effects of feathers.

After Avon Lake, it was back to the Jeep to warm up on the short drive west to Lorain, and its harbor. As an aside, about a year ago I got a 2017 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, which is proving to be a supreme winter vehicle. One of its bells among the whistles is a heated steering wheel. When those started showing up on cars, I considered it an excessive bauble. Not anymore. Greatest hand-warmer there is, after an extended immersion into polar temperatures.

Upon arrival to Lorain Harbor, I noticed a sizable elongate dark smudge on the ice, as seen in the above photograph. A polynya - packed with fowl! Aside II: "Polynya" is a Russian word that refers to an open water patch among sea ice. It's a great word that was brought into the birder lexicon when it was discovered in 1995 that spectacled eiders, whose whereabouts in winter was previously a mystery, were overwintering on polynyas in the Bering Sea. I see no reason why it can't be adapted to freshwater conditions.

Anyway, back to our Lake Erie polynya and its occupants. Mergansers! By the boatload! You can count up the individuals in this photo - I'm not! - and extrapolate, but there must have been a few thousand birds in this lead. The majority were red-breasted mergansers, although their ranks were spiced with a fair number of common mergansers. One thing is for sure - if you were a fish, you would NOT want to swim under this hole!

Here's a tight shot of the ever-shifting pack, using a gleaming white male common merganser as a centerpiece. Sharp-eyed birders will pick out some hen common mergs among the masses. The latter have brighter rufous heads, and a much cleaner demarcation between the white throat and rusty head than do the female red-breasted mergansers.

I spent quite some time watching this amazing frenzy of life in an otherwise frozen landscape. Birds were always coming and going - how do they take off and land in this crowd?! - and I bet the underwater view of the feeding birds would be incredible. There's a challenge for a serious aquatic videographer!

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