Major duck die-off

Buffalo, N.Y. — DEC officials says the severe winter of 2013-14 is being blamed as the major cause of a large waterfowl die-off that may kill thousands of birds before it’s over.

The extreme cold and excessive ice cover is causing fish-eating waterfowl like red-breasted mergansers, scaup (greater and lesser) and common merganser to scramble for food – and they are losing the battle. Other waterfowl that have succumbed to Mother Nature’s grip have included long-tailed ducks (Old Squaw), canvasbacks, redheads, white-winged scoters, the threatened pie-billed grebe, Canada geese, tundra swans and several species of gulls.

Birds have been dying from starvation and those numbers are currently estimated in the thousands. And that number could grow before the ice departs.

“This is unprecedented,” said Connie Adams, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Region 9 office out of Buffalo. “We’ve never seen anything like this. We are attributing it to prolonged ice cover for an extended period of time. I knew it was going to be bad when I was first alerted to the situation, but it’s worse than I thought.”

Adams alone has documented through collection and observation over 1,000 dead waterfowl by March 7 and those numbers will continue to rise.

“I went down to Dunkirk area and counted 100 dead birds on the ice, the same day we found dead ducks at the Sheridan boat launch in the town of Tonawanda,” Adams said. “This was in early February.

On Feb. 11, I went back to Dunkirk and spent two-and-a-half hours collecting and counting dead waterfowl. In that time my numbers were 400-500 birds. It took my breath away. Many birds were struggling to survive, too.”

Dunkirk harbor has open water due to a warm water discharge associated with a power plant there. She also noted that 36 bald eagles were sighted in the Dunkirk area at the same time as those birds were dying.

Dead and dying waterfowl were being reported from Presque Isle, Pa., to Oswego in Lake Ontario’s eastern basin.

DEC Region 9 spokesperson Megan Gollwitzer said the birds need to consume about 20 percent of their body weight per day to maintain a healthy disposition. Pathology exams on collected birds showed the birds to be in poor condition and starved. The extent of the mortality is extensive and difficult to estimate at this point.

DEC conducts waterfowl counts throughout the winter in Region 9 (western New York). The Niagara River Corridor is a globally important bird area, especially in the winter months when the combination of open water and baitfish such as emerald shiners serve as a magnet for a variety of water birds, not just ducks and geese. As many as 19 different species of gulls have been recorded in the winter months, including up to 20 percent of the world’s population of Bonaparte’s gulls. In one January survey this year nearly 250,000 waterfowl were counted by biologists. In February, the number dipped to fewer than 200,000 birds.

“Ducks are showing up in areas that I’ve never seen them in before,” said avid birder Jim Pawlicki of Amherst. “I’ve seen birds like mergansers, canvasbacks and redheads showing up in small open water areas like Tonawanda Creek, Ellicott Creek and Gott Creek to name a few here in Erie County. It’s evident these birds are struggling to survive.”

Pawlicki was one of the first to actually notice a problem with some of the ducks. He patrols the Niagara River corridor every winter, spotting and photographing birds. During the last week of January he noticed three dead ducks – a mallard and two scaup – along the shoreline behind Collins Marine near the south Grand Island Bridge. He made a mental note, thinking that it was unusual because it was well after the close of hunting season. The next day, there were two more ducks in the same location; they had apparently died overnight. He then notified Adams to the potential problem.

“Many of the birds were emaciated. Combined with the severe cold, they don’t seem to be feeding on the baitfish that is normally available in the river. I’m not seeing any juvenile shad,” he said.

That baitfish consideration was also echoed by fishing guides in the lower Niagara River. Capt. John DeLorenzo of Niagara Falls was noticing the die-off of ducks for over a month. “I could see that many of them were in bad shape,” said the veteran guide. “I’ve been watching many of them crawling up onto an ice floe, struggling to survive. I’ve also seen many of them dead. This week I saw eight different bald eagles hanging around the lower river – the most I’ve ever seen here. They are taking advantage of the situation. To take it a step further, I’m not seeing the baitfish like the emerald shiners that I normally see either. That has to be a concern.”

DEC Region 9 fisheries biologist Mike Wilkinson said a recent Lake Erie survey trawl last fall showed emerald shiner numbers were down a bit but not anything that was alarming. “Emerald shiners typically come down out of Lake Erie with the ice floes,” said Wilkinson, a 30-year veteran of the department. “They live in the upper part of the water column and are light sensitive, so it stands to reason that the baitfish could be staying out of harm’s way under the ice this year. I don’t think it’s an abundance issue regarding baitfish. It’s probably more the severity of the winter. Waterfowl will also feed off smaller gobies, minnows, crayfish and mussels, so there are alternative food sources.

Not all of the birds are dying. Nearly 150 waterfowl have been taken to wildlife rehabilitation facilities around Western New York as of early March. It’s not just a question of feeding them because many of the birds have lost the waterproofing qualities of their feathers. “You can’t just feed them corn,” Adams said. “These are fish-eating birds that need specialized care. The SPCA, Messinger Woods and Hawk Creek are all doing an excellent job rehabilitating the birds so far.”

“We found many of the birds are soaking wet because they’ve lost the ability to repel water,” Adams said.

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