Guest Post: Toronto’s Winter Waterfowl By Deborah M. Buehler

The pedestrian bridge spanning the junction between Embayment C and Cell 3 in Tommy ThompsonPark (TTP) swayed slightly in the brisk winter breeze.  On the bridge, people chattered with excitement about how to tell a Greater Scaup from a Common Goldeneye (or for the hardcore birders, from a Lesser Scaup) and speculated about whether the swans with their head’s tucked under their wings were Trumpeter or Mute. 

Enjoying Winter Waterfowl at the pedestrian bridge viewing station. Photo: Don Johnston

Then someone called out, “Mink!” 

The mink’s would be prey (a Red-breasted Merganser) narrowly escaped, to the collective “Oh!” of myself, and about 20 others, who had piled onto the bridge as part of the Toronto Region and Conservation Authority’s (TRCA) Winter Waterfowl Event on March 7th, 2015. We were further delighted when the mink scampered across the open ice of Embayment C with the Toronto skyline as a backdrop. 

Toronto skyline from Tommy Thompson Park – now picture it with a mink running across the ice. Photo: Debbie Buehler.
The pedestrian bridge provided an ideal viewing platform, not only for mink, but also for a variety of ducks and swans. I had volunteered to staff the bridge with long time TTP volunteer naturalist Don Johnston. As part of the event, TRCA had interpretive stations and walks at various places within the park, but I thought the bridge would be the best place to see the waterfowl. I was not disappointed! We had Greater and Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Mallards, American Black Ducks, a White-winged Scoter, and a Canvasback with it’s longer neck and wedge shaped head in direct contrast to the similarly colored Redheads. The ducks were gathered in the small stretches of open water on either side of the bridge, taking advantage of easily accessible food, mainly zebra mussels, according to Don.

Ducks and Trumpeter Swans in Embayment C. Photo: Debbie Buehler
A few days earlier it was doubtful that we’d be able to see anything at all from the bridge. The deep cold of winter had frozen the water around the bridge solid. But a few warmer and sunny days, coupled with winds that caused the water to flow quickly between the two bodies of water, provided just enough ice break-up to attract the birds. 

Ducks in Cell 3. Photo: Debbie Buehler
Freeze up on the Great Lakes, is a much bigger problem for ducks than it is for human duck watchers. These past two winters have been brutal. When the lakes freeze, and especially when sheltered inlets and bays freeze, it becomes much harder for ducks to reach their winter foods. Last winter proved lethal for many of Toronto’s winter ducks, and this winter has also been very hard.  

Ducks in Embayment C. Photo Debbie Buehler
Although some of Toronto’s winter ducks – like the Mallards and American Black Ducks – will stay to breed in the area, many will migrate north to lakes and ponds in the boreal forest. And some, like the Long-tailed ducks, will carry on all the way up to the high Arctic. Indeed, some of the ducks were already feeling amorous. A few Common Goldeneye drakes even provided a few moments of display

Common Goldeneye with head back mating display. Photo: Debbie Buehler
Over the course of the morning I spoke to many people on the bridge, from hardy winter regulars, to people out of their first event. I even had the pleasure of meeting one of the TRCA’s restoration staff. We chatted about the work he’d done in Embayment A – now one of my favorite places in the park. 

I looked around at the snow-covered landscape and commented: “You have one of the best offices in the world!”

A smiled and nod indicated that he agreed. More proof was that he was back “at the office” on the weekend, his time off, eager to show his 4-year old son the wonders of his workplace and Tommy Thompson Park.  

About the author:

Deborah Buehler is an ecologist, a writer, a devoted mother and a TTPBRS volunteer extraordinaire. She has a passion for critical thinking and muses about how humans are adapting to and changing our environment in the context of culture, ecology, evolution and sustainability. Read more about Deborah on her blog.