Foam Lake Birding No. 101

No. 101
After the excitement of seeing Whooping Cranes last week the birds at the feeder seem quite ordinary, but on the other hand, the good variety of birds in our yard provides lots of interest. To date we have seen White and Red Breasted Nuthatches, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, House Finches, Pine Siskins, Chickadees, House Sparrows and two that should not be here - a Robin and a juvenile Harris Sparrow. We know that there are more winter birds to come.
Rurally, Canada, Snow and Ross's Geese are still here as are some ducks and coots. The recent blizzard does not seem to have interfered with them at all and larger bodies of water that have not yet frozen over are often full of water fowl. The upcoming heat wave will probably keep them here even longer.
One of the last of the diving ducks to migrate south is the Lesser Scaup Duck. In the summer time it is probably the most common duck to be seen on larger permanent bodies of water. Because it spends all of its time on the water, including nesting, it is seldom noticed and most people do not even know that it exists.
There are four divers (Red Head, Canvas Back, Ring Necked and Lesser Scaup) that, at a distance, look very much alike. All four ducks are whitish with dark heads, necks, breasts and tails. All four look as if somebody took a whitish duck and dipped its front and rear ends in dark paint. At close range or with binoculars the Red Head and Canvas Back can be separated quite easily because of their brownish red heads. The more similar Ring Necked can be separated from the Scaup by (1) its all black back whereas the latter has a light grey one; (2) the Ringed Neck has a black bill with a bold white ring or band around the tip while the Scaup has an all blue bill. Scaups are often called bluebills but it is not a good name as some other ducks also have blue bills.
On lakes and larger rivers matters become much more complicated as these waters harbour the extremely similar Greater Scaup Duck. The similarity is so great that only very experienced birders can tell them apart. The Greater is a little larger but only marginally so that even in a mixed flock this field mark is of no use. In good light the drake Lesser gives off purple reflection off his head, while the Greater gives off greenish ones but the differences are subtle to say the least. Experts use head shape for identification but it takes a good bit of practice to use this field mark with any confidence. The hens are an almost identical medium brown. The two Scaups could be found at the Foam Lake marsh providing some challenging practice in identification.
Although they are still quite common experts tell us that the Lesser Scaup population is plummeting for some as yet unknown reason. One explanation is that the last decade or so has been very dry resulting in lack of suitable nesting sites. Whatever the reason, hopefully, the trend is only temporary.
This week's photo of a drake Lesser Scaup was taken in a slough alongside the Dunlop road just east of town. Although they may be scarcer now they are still around.

John Senkiw