|Winter is fickle. One day, a sudden front moves in and coats everything in frosty white. The next day, the sunshine feels warm, the birds are singing, and one gets hopeful for spring. Birding in winter can feel the same way–one day, birds seem to be everywhere and the next, the landscape is silent and still. Here in the parks along the western Toronto lake shore, there can be a surprising amount of activity as wintering birds and wildlife search for food and shelter. Sea ducks and other waterfowl of the coasts and the northern tundra move to wintering grounds on the great lakes, sometimes in very large numbers. The parks also occasionally host
rare or unusual species that become a magnet for birders and photographers.
I have found through years of exploring Colonel Samuel Smith Park and Humber Bay Park that some of the best views of sea and diving ducks can be had on sunny, calm winter days, in sheltered bays and inlets where there are open areas of water in the lake ice. Ice shelves seem particularly attractive, and many species, some of which are rarely seen close to shore, will congregate to feed. Dabbling ducks and coots, looking for aquatic plants in shallow areas or along the shore, often accompany them.
While many female duck species tend to wear more subtle, cryptic plumage year-round, male ducks–called drakes–are in their finest breeding (or alternate) plumage through the late fall and winter, best seen in the early morning or late afternoon sunshine. The feathers of some drakes can light up with multicoloured iridescence that looks dull or black under overcast skies. The ubiquitous Mallard gets short shrift much of the time, but it is undeniably attractive (they think so too).
Feeding behaviour of the different species is also easily observed under these ideal conditions. In what seems like a lucky stroke, some diving ducks have developed a taste for invasive zebra mussels, along with their usual clams and crustaceans. However, further research is needed to determine the accumulative effects of contaminant burdens from the zebra mussels. Greater and Lesser Scaups, Long-tailed Ducks, and Scoters are among those that manage to swallow the clams whole, where the hard shells are later crushed in the gizzard.
American Coots are a good reminder that not everything that floats is a duck! Coots are related to the rails; they have large feet with lobed toes, rather than webbed toes like ducks, and rather than waddling on land, they have a still-comical chicken-like gait. They can be seen in small numbers, mingling with other dabblers, feeding on aquatic plants.
Grebes, another type of waterfowl seen in winter, share lobed toes with the coots, but they have no close avian relatives. With legs situated far to the rear of their bodies, these birds are barely able to walk on land. Red-necked Grebes, which nest in Col. Sam Smith Park and Humber Bay Park East, often linger into November and begin returning in late February. The pairs return to their usual territories–nests of sticks and vegetation built on floating wooden platforms provided by supporters to encourage breeding–already singing their raucous songs of love and challenge.
Taking over from the Red-necked Grebes once they leave, Horned Grebes are seen mainly in migration or while over-wintering on the great lakes; they breed across western Canada and the Yukon.
One more species, the petite Pied-billed Grebes can be found in the open water of harbours and bays in the winter.
Seen in winter in Toronto only rarely is the Eared Grebe. This beauty stayed for a while in January, 2017, Col. Sam Smith Park.
Canada Geese now overwinter along the lake shore parks in great numbers, similar to Mallards, no doubt aided by overfeeding and the proliferation of grassy lawns. They tend to be somewhat overlooked, but when a large flock is stretched out in a long “V” across the sky and bugling loudly, they are hard to ignore. There are several subspecies of Canada Geese ranging across Canada, with the smallest now recognized as a different species – The Cackling Goose.
All three of our swan species can be seen along the lakeshore in winter, or flying overhead in small flocks. Although native Trumpeter Swans, once extirpated from Ontario but now successfully reintroduced through captive breeding programs, are more common west and east of the west Toronto lake shore, they can be seen passing overhead or stopping for a rest and a meal. Introduced from Europe, Mute Swans directly compete for the traditional nesting habitat of the Trumpeters.
Our other native swan species, the Tundra Swan, begins to migrate back toward the Arctic tundra in February-March, “staging” in large numbers around the northern Lake Erie bays, marshes and fields, and are occasionally spotted here in our parks.
We, the cold, are occasionally rewarded with rare or unusual species in winter, like the aforementioned Eared Grebe. King Eiders, usually immatures, tend to show up in ones and twos every winter.
Another rarity that tends to show up annually in winter is the Harlequin Duck, a bird of fast-moving water breeding on fast-flowing streams in northern Quebec and Labrador. Some end up wintering on the great lakes and the Niagara River in low numbers.
Much less commonly reported, but a species that seems to have had an affinity for the west Toronto shores in the past, is the Western Grebe. Strictly a western bird, it does rarely wander far off course–to thrill many admirers.
Although they are much more expected annually than the rarities above, some of the following species are always nice to see on a winter’s outing along the lake.
Ruddy Ducks are sometimes seen loafing far out on the bay at Humber Bay Park East. Strangely, these tiny ducks adopt breeding plumage opposite most other species, wearing muted colours in winter. A characteristic field mark is the tail held upright.
I have a friend or two who think that ducks and other waterfowl are (yaawwwn) boring. True enough, when peering at distant rafts of indistinguishable ducks out on the lake on a cold, grey day, then maybe they can be boring. But, every once in a while, conditions are just right for an up-close and personal–and very unboring– look at some very brightlycoloured birds in an otherwise stark winter landscape.
Bird walks are arranged several times a year at Col. Sam Smith Park, advertised on the Friends of Sam Smith Park site.
For information on birds of the Toronto lake shore parks and field trips:
Recommended field guide: Sibley Birds East.
This article originally appeared on the Friends of Sam Smith Park website.