Habitat Selection by Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) overwintering at Lake Ontario

Primary Investigator:
Philip Wilson, M.Sc. Candidate

Dr. Scott Petrie, Long Point Waterfowl Executive Director
Dr. Chris Guglielmo, Western University
Dr. Michael Schummer, Long Point Waterfowl Scientist


Sea ducks, including Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Black Scoters, White-winged Scoters, and Long-tailed Ducks, became increasingly abundant at Lake Ontario during migration and winter over the past 20 years. As a result, there is a pressing need to understand the types of habitats these ducks tend to use so that science-based conservation planning can be developed. Currently, Long-tailed ducks are the most numerous of the sea
ducks at Lake Ontario, and they use nearshore (e.g., protected harbours) and offshore areas (e.g., 20km from shore). Because Long-tailed ducks are difficult to observe offshore, we used satellite telemetry to study how these ducks use habitats at Lake Ontario during winter.

Placement of wind turbines in offshore areas and decreased ice cover with a warming climate may greatly alter habitat availability for Long-tailed ducks during migration and winter at Lake Ontario. Because types of habitats used by Long-tailed ducks at Lake Ontario may shift with a warming climate, it is important to incorporate potential changes in their distributions when making recommendations about wind turbine placement in offshore areas.  Phil’s primary objectives are to understand how water depth, distance from shore, substrate type, percentage ice cover, and other environmental variables influence habitat selection by Long-tailed ducks at Lake Ontario.

In collaboration with Canadian Wildlife Service, we captured and banded 314 Long-tailed ducks over 34 days during winter and spring 2010 through 2013. We used fine mist-nets suspended perpendicular to the water that were held up by poles and floats (pictured on right) and an innovative “lift-net” technique devised by Long Point Waterfowl students to capture diving and sea ducks (pictured below). Once ducks were captured, we worked with vets from USGS and the Toronto Zoo to surgically implant satellite transmitters in 74 adult Long-tailed ducks (51 female, 23 male).  Marked Long-tailed ducks were tracked by satellites orbiting Earth to determine their locations at Lake Ontario throughout winter. Because we partnered with the Sea Duck Joint
Venture as part of their larger research program on Atlantic coast and Great Lakes sea duck migration study, we also wished to answer key questions about important migration stop-over areas, annual variability in migration patterns, and breeding and moulting areas. Thus, we focused on implanting and tracking adult females because they are primarily responsible for recruitment of young into the population.

Habitat use by overwintering Long-tailed Ducks at Lake Ontario. Blue = total area used for foraging, roosting, Red = area of greatest use, Green = approximate locations of planned offshore industrial wind turbines

We will use results from our marked sample of Long-tailed ducks to extrapolate habitat use to the lake-wide level to determine areas where placement of wind turbines could most impact Long-tailed ducks at Lake Ontario. To test our mapping efforts generated from marked individuals, Phil also conducted aerial surveys in nearshore areas to document abundance and distributions of Long-tailed ducks at Lake Ontario during winter. At Lake Ontario, we detected that our sample of marked Long-tailed ducks primarily used habitats along Prince Edward County in northeastern Lake Ontario, protected harbours near Hamilton and Toronto, and outlet areas of the Welland Canal and Niagara River.

Analyses of trends in habitat selection are ongoing and Phil plans on defending his thesis in Fall 2013.



Long-tailed Ducks: Movement Patterns

Wintering Movement Maps on Lake Ontario
Winter 2011-2012: birds marked in the western basin of Lake Ontario are shown in purple, birds marked in the eastern basin are marked in yellow.

Spring Migration Route 2012

Project Sponsors

Canadian Wildlife Service
Ducks Unlimited
Long Point Waterfowl
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters
S.C. Johnson & Son Ltd
Sea Duck Joint Venture
TD Friends of the Environment Foundation
Toronto Zoo
United States Geological Survey
Wildlife Habitat Canada

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