Redhead Ducks In Toronto Harbour
One of the highlights of our winter day trip aboard a Toronto Island Ferry to Ward’s Island, one of 13 islands in Toronto Harbour, was seeing a real proliferation of ducks, some of which were wintering in Southern Ontario from the Arctic. One such species was the striking Redhead Duck (Aythya americana).
Even before Bob and I boarded the Ongiara, the ferryboat that would be conveying us across the Inner Harbour to Ward’s Island, a congregation of ducks could be seen milling around the wharf where the icy waters found it difficult to remain frozen.
A glance across the bay certainly explained the throngs of waterfowl enjoying the open water next to shore. There was little to be had anywhere in Ontario given the prolonged cold temperatures that plagued the region for weeks on end during this, one of the coldest winters in over ten years.
Recent reports, in fact, indicate that uncommon numbers of ducks have succumbed to the severe winter conditions because there was little open water where the ducks could forage for food. Even a high percentage of the surface area of the Great Lakes had turned into a solid sheet of ice. A lot of ducks, in essence, have starved to death. Add to that, the risks of diving in and amongst the pack ice, and you have the perfect conditions for some of the ducks to become trapped or squashed.
The result is that the ferry lane and spaces of unfrozen water next to the piers provided welcome and much needed locations for different species of ducks to dive for food. The sun was shining brightly the day we made our trek to the island, so the plumage on the ducks was shown to great advantage.
I was very excited to spot a number of Redhead Ducks bobbing in the water as I had never before seen them except in pictures. A female Common Goldeneye is seen here with a Redhead, both of them set off nicely by the delicate aquamarine colour of the water, which I’m sure was warmer than the surrounding frosty air.
What a show when this raft of Redheads passed by, the brilliant chestnut heads of the drakes glimmering in the noonday sun. The hens are not quite as showy, but their heads and necks are also brown, darker on the crowns and at the back of the neck. Both are in winter or breeding plumage.
Female Redhead Ducks resemble female scaups, and here we see a female Greater Scaup in the foreground. What distinguishes a female Scaup from a female Redhead is the distinct white patch at the base of a Scaup’s bill. A Redhead hen has only a buffy suggestion of a lighter area at the base of the bill.
Redhead drakes have a striking black chest and rump with a soft grey back, as well as a unique blue bill. The female Redheads, on the left side of this photograph, illustrate the faint pale streak behind the eye, as well as the black-tipped bluish bill for which they are known. As we looked on, these Redhead Ducks were blissfully diving in search of aquatic plants and mollusks. With any luck, maybe they were able to unearth some tubers or happen upon some small fish.
Even though the days here in Southern Ontario are now becoming gradually warmer, it will be sometime before the Redhead Ducks return to their breeding grounds across the northern prairies of United States and select regions in western Canada. They prefer marshes and prairie potholes, and the loss of such breeding habitats is contributing to the sharp decline of the Redhead populations.
For now, the Redheads are bound to the rare patches of open water here on the Great Lakes, and for any of us lucky enough to happen on some, they give great pleasure by their sheer presence and innate beauty.