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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That ... Spring Duck?

What Is That … Spring Duck?


Last year the ice was out at White Lake by April 12th, so when we visited the cottage on Three Mile Bay on the 17th, we were able to put the canoe in the water.

In addition to the usual safety gear, we are extra careful during the first paddles of the season.  We have read the articles about how dangerous still-frigid water is and how quickly hypothermia can set in if one is dumped in the lake, even if the air temperature has warmed to the low 20s (Celsius) as it had that day. We are explaining this because it speaks to the point of why we stay so close to shore during our first paddles.

On April 17 last year, we saw and were able to photograph from the canoe two “lifers” for us.  The first was the male bufflehead duck, resting at White Lake before continuing its long flight to the far north of Ontario to its breeding grounds.  Thank goodness we were able to take decent pictures allowing us to make the identification because in the moment we did not know what that distant spring duck was.  The bufflehead is a diving duck whose preferred diet is aquatic insects, crustaceans and mollusks.  Three Mile Bay has lots of all three, providing an excellent buffet for a migrating bufflehead duck.  In the photograph below the male bufflehead’s distinctive white head with the white extending from behind the eye to the nape of its neck is a clear field mark.

Another northern duck, the second ‘lifer” of that day, was the common goldeneye duck.  As usual, the zoom lens of the camera provided essential information for us to use later to identify it.  Without the photographic evidence, we would not have remembered exactly what we had seen, certainly not enough detail for a definitive identification.  The first picture of the common goldeneye below shows the male’s large triangular black head with a white patch at the base of its bill.  We can also see from the out-of-focus duck behind that the common goldeneye sometimes hangouts with buffleheads.  The second goldeneye picture captures two males on the right, we want to think eyeing the brown- headed female on the left.  Perhaps they were thinking of a ‘date’.  Note the yellow tip on the bill of the female common goldeneye, a useful field mark.  Goldeneyes also feed on aquatic insects and small fish.

We also saw common mergansers that day.  The first time we saw common mergansers in 2012, we were fortunate to take a picture which included both the female and male.  It simply makes identification easier if the two are spending time together since it is difficult to distinguish among female common, hooded and red-breasted mergansers.  Common mergansers are fish-eating, diving ducks.  The male’s sleek body is primarily white(ish) with a dark, iridescent head.  The female’s body is grey and it has a cinnamon-brown head.  Note the distinct demarcation between the female’s head colour and body colour.  To our knowledge, the common merganser rarely nests on Three Mile Bay, White Lake.  One year, however, we saw a female with ducklings, but most years we see them only in April and September as they transit elsewhere.  The first photograph is of that 2012 sighting.  The second picture is of a pair of males.  The third is a lone female, shortly after it surfaced from a dive.

Lastly, although not a duck, the Canada goose nests in April at the lake, always very close to the shore.  Previously, we have talked about the art and science of camouflage.  This nesting female Canada goose is another example of nature’s skill at camouflage.  The female does all the incubation while her mate guards her and the nest.  As soon as we realized what we were looking at, we carefully, quietly backed the canoe away.

Helpful information about the ducks in this article can be found in Chris Earley’s Waterfowl of Eastern North America; and, at




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