The ducks and geese you might spot wintering in Nova Scotia are not a happy lot.
Their lives are devoid of pleasure. They’re in a constant state of survival mode, vulnerable to potentially life-threatening cold snaps. They can’t be bothered with sex, not until the spring arrives, anyway.
But brave and hardy they are. They endure the elements while others of their kind flock south for greener, kindlier pastures.
Take American black ducks, for example. About 20,000 or so of them survive off the little invertebrates our province’s salt marshes and mudflats provide during winter. The bulk of them arrive from Labrador and northern Newfoundland and stay put instead of heading south to places like Boston and Maine.
They make a judgement call, says Glen Parsons, a biologist with the Natural Resources Department. Figuring there’s an adequate food source and the winter won’t kill them, they stay put. Same goes for other waterfowl species that brave our long cold winters: scoters, Canada Geese, brant Geese, eiders, goldeneye, bluebills and the endangered harlequin duck, as well as purple sandpipers, the only species of sandpiper that sticks around Nova Scotia during winter.
“Basically, they’re trying to get enough energy reserves to survive through the winter without flying south,” said Parsons.
“As the season gets warmer, the days get warmer and they’re moving from survival mode to breeding mode in spring. They startto form bonds and make nest selections. Some of our overwintering birds will migrate further north to Labrador. Some will migrate shorter distances and others will breed right here in the province.”
Parsons has an intimate understanding of their winter habits. He’s a member of the department’s ecosystems and habitats program that monitors Nova Scotia waterfowl populations by covering roughly 10,000 kilometers of coastline by helicopter.
It’s an endeavour that begins mid-January and runs through to the end of February. It’s part of a multi-pronged species conservation and management method that occurs soon after the province’s waterfowl hunting season ends.
“It’s done in the winter because ponds and lakes are frozen so the waterfowl are pushed to the coastline, and that gives us a chance to get a look at birds concentrated along the coast.
“When the end of February rolls around, fresh water inlets are all opened up and birds are starting to pair up.”
Data shows an increasing number of American black ducks and mallards are wintering in theprovince. Parsons speculates that the upward trend could be attributed to climate change. He said overall populations are not showing a significant increase, pointing to a change in migratory patterns.
“It used to be uncommon for many mallards to over-winter here. We used to see a few hundred, now we’re up into the few thousands range.”
The population of American bald eagles is also on the rise, another bird his team tracks during the winter survey.
Upwards of 20,000 Canada Geese winter throughout the province, specifically in areas such as Yarmouth, Cole Harbour, Port Joli, Sable River, which offer deep ice-free bays where eelgrass (their food of choice) is most plentiful. Scoters are generally found in the open ocean where they primarily make their living off blue mussels.
The team’s data goes into, among other uses, informing hunting regulations, including bag limits and season lengths, set out by the federal government.
Why does all of this matter?
“It’s part of Nova Scotia’s biodiversity, part of our natural biodiversity. If you have a good healthy biodiversity, you have good, healthy environments, and that’s good for everyone.”
As you might imagine, there’s worse ways for a fella to spend his days.
“Outside of the science, I get to really appreciate the diverse coastline that we have in Nova Scotia. It’s magnificent. The Bay of Fundy is very different from the Atlantic coast. The Eastern Shore islands, the South Shore and Tusket areas are very different from higher headland coastlines of the Bras d’Or Lakes in Cape Breton. We are a small province but our coastline is so diverse. I wish everyone had the opportunity to do it.”