Frozen Fowl

A male Red-breasted Merganser

Do you know what photographers get when they’ve been sitting on the ice too long?


I’m always wishing for a really cold and snowy winter with lots of ice to concentrate my favorite subject, ducks.  Well, I got my wish big time! This winter is the coldest I’ve ever seen, to the point that many of my favorite spots for waterfowl are totally frozen over and some ducks are probably starving to death. Brutal cold has been a test for all animals in southeastern Michigan, including me. I’m going through lots of hand warmers as I try to keep my fingers from freezing while using my camera.

There’s an unusually high number of Red-breasted Mergansers around this winter. We see mostly commons and a few hoodeds during the winter months.  Red-breasteds are hard to find, and I always thought that these birds wintered further south or to the east on Lake Ontario where there are good numbers during the winter. Maybe I was wrong. The St. Clair River currently has more of these birds than I’ve ever seen, along with many thousands of Long-tailed Ducks. I suspect that these birds normally winter far offshore on Lake Huron and were forced into the river due to heavy ice cover.


A few of the thousands of Long-tailed Ducks on the St. Clair River.

A Round Goby is in big trouble! Two female Red-breasted Mergansers battle for a meal.

Round Gobies, native to the Black and Caspian Seas, are yet another invasive species introduced to North America by us stupid humans. They were first discovered in the St. Clair River in 1990 and likely came from the dumping of a ship’s ballast water. They eat the eggs of native fish, BUT they also eat Zebra Mussels. That’s a good thing, and native fish like Smallmouth Bass and Walleye are eating gobies. Of course, there’s a twist. Some fish feed heavily on nonnative zebra and quagga mussels that are at times also a good source for Type E botulism. The mussels are supposedly not affected by the botulism, but fish and fish-eating birds that ingest them are and they often die. Their bodies are littered upon the beaches of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie. Fish species commonly found during die-off events include  Freshwater Drum, Smallmouth Bass, Rock Bass, Round Gobies, and Channel Catfish. Bird species affected by Type E botulism include loons, grebes, cormorants, ducks, herons, shorebirds, gulls and eagles.  More information can be found at the Michigan Sea Grant website.

A male Redhead struggles with a big cluster of Zebra Mussels as more birds try to steal them.

Suicide race: A bunch of mergansers fight for a fishing lure.

This jig looked pretty good to them and it changed hands (or bills) several times. I’m pretty sure no one actually swallowed it, but I do see birds with hooks and line wrapped around them pretty often.

Sea duck photography at 15F below.

Yeah, those temperatures and a clear sky sounded awesome, but a northeast wind on Lake Ontario proved my frozen brain wrong again. Sea smoke — a beautiful term for really crappy conditions — made autofocus pretty much useless. Hypothermic conditions are serious character-building for me but just another day for these tough little Long-tailed Ducks. Can you imagine having to dive underwater for your food in these temperatures!?  This recent trip was a bust but I look froward to trying again with cleats gripping an icy breakwall and, hopefully, the wind at my back.

A drake Canvasback dries off after a bath.


~ by David Stimac on January 31, 2014.

12 Responses to “Frozen Fowl”

  1. Amazing shots….as usual!

  2. Lovely Work David!! At least you have some open water. verything down here is still pretty much “locked in” with Ice!

  3. David I don’t know if you know me my name is Danny Klauss, I’m a waterfowl and Hunt photographer from Harrison township. I’ve been out all this winter and your right its hasn’t been this cold in years. The photo opportunity’s are amazing with the ice pushing the waterfowl into smaller areas. The Red breasted Mergs have been showing in an unusual numbers. Thanks for sharing. Danny

  4. Thanks for addressing this subject which has been a concern for me every winter, but especially this winter.

    I’m also concerned that such a huge concentration of birds will pollute the water and start an epidemic of some kind in the population, killing more birds and eventually starving the predators who depend on them.

    • Vera, I wouldn’t be too concerned about the birds polluting the water. There are huge concentrations of birds in various places every year, fall through spring with no negative consequences as far as I know.

  5. Nice captures and description/story here! I love the action shot “2 females fighting for round goby fish” That looks like a pretty big (and frantic!) fish for those birds to handle, was the girl who has it caught in the shot able to really eat that entire thing?? I wonder if the fish could escape during their fight here or did one of them eat that fish and wriggling the whole way down too?! Keep up the interesting shots! 😉

    • Thanks Kyle! Yes, she managed to gulp it down. Common mergansers can handle fish much larger. It looks painful when they’re choking down a big gizzard shad.

      • Just stumbled across this interesting shot again! I have never witnessed an event like this before. I wonder, wouldn’t s fish that size (also her neck looks smaller then the shocked goby’s big head!) damage her throat/stomach if eaten by wriggling about and all of those sharp fins/pectoral fins?!

        Once down is the unlucky fish destined as food?

        You have some other cool shots as well, keep it up! 🙂

  6. Thanks! It’s amazing how these birds can swallow such large fish and one would think that they might suffer some injuries. I’ve seen hundreds of mergansers, gulls, cormorants and herons gulp down some very big fish and they seem to be just fine.

    • Oh wow fascinating! I did alittle research online and still found it hard to believe how birds consume such fish! It’s hard to imagine how even this goby here would agree well with the females stomach. So this fish stood no chance here even once swallowed down? Does the goby really succumb to the birds gullet so easily and is destined as food once gulped??

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