Thursday, February 25, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Ice volcanoes and oldsquaws

Last year, an installment of this column looked at the awesome spectacle that is the ice volcano (link). Ice volcanoes are mountains of ice that can be found along the Lake Ontario shoreline and they get their name from the icy waters that are spewed from them due to wave action.

Last year’s frigid winter made for some good ice volcanoes. One would think that an unusual winter like this with little snow or recurring warm spells would keep them at a minimum this year. But, it hasn’t. I’d say that this winter’s volcanoes are much better than last winter’s – maybe because the ice sheet doesn’t extend as far into the lake and the near shore wave action is better.

Once again, if you want to see them, your best bet is to go to the boat launch area of Golden Hill State Park.

If you go, make sure you take your binoculars with you for some bird watching. The frigid waters of Lake Ontario are being enjoyed by oldsquaws which are incredibly beautiful ducks whose attractiveness is rivaled only by the gaudy wood ducks that frequent the Niagara summers.

The male oldsquaw is told by its striking black and white plumage, the contrast of which makes them easily identifiable from a distance. If you look at them through field glasses, you will notice a pink band around their beak. The photo above shows just how attractive they can be.

The females, on the other hand, are a little dreary-looking compared to their mates. The stark contrast is gone and their white cheeks, throats and undersides are complemented by brown/black tops.

Oldsquaws have rather unique call. It doesn’t sound anything like a quack. It’s a loud, nasal – even piercing -- call that some field guides describe as "ow-owooolee." Males will repeat this call incessantly, and that’s where the bird gets its rather politically incorrect name from – their talkative behavior reminded people of old women who just didn’t know when to be quiet. In only the past few years, that has led the birding community to change the bird’s name to long-tailed duck.

Oldsquaws spend their summers in the Far North, living in large lakes of the tundra and along the shore of the Arctic Ocean. They are incredibly abundant there, with populations numbering in the millions. As the north freezes over, they head south (just not as far south as most birds) and spend their winters in Hudson Bay, the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and here in the Great Lakes.

These seas ducks are some of the most accomplished divers of the bird world. Although most of their feeding takes place at depths under 25 feet, they have been known to dive down to 200 feet for food.

When they are in a foraging mood, they can spend four times as much time underwater as they do on top of it. That can make watching them an interesting experience – just when you’ve found one with your binoculars he will disappear for a long time, long enough that you’ll find yourself asking, “Where did he go? Did he drown?”

While down there, the ducks feed mostly on mollusks and crustaceans. That makes them a beneficial snowbird as they eat the zebra mussels that have plagued Lake Ontario for far too long. This weekend, while the winter beauty of ice volcanoes and oldsquaws are still here, make it a point to go out to the lake. You want a crummier, windier day so the waves can do their thing to the volcanoes, so dress warmly…and take a camera and binoculars.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where potholes are the closest thing his town has to ice volcanoes. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 25 February 2016 East Niagara Post

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