Duck die-off on Great Lakes; some make it to the Allegheny

Recently Pennsylvania Game Commission WCO Darin L. Clark, Erie County, reported in the Pennsylvania Game Commission Field Notes that he investigated a “significant waterfowl die-off on Presque Isle Bay”. News reports tell us that duck die-off is documented along both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, at least. Numbers of ducks involved at this time are not known, but it might amount to many thousands.

Also in that report, most of the ducks which have been found dead were red-breasted mergansers. There are other duck species, also, and five great blue herons had been found dead. Red-breasted mergansers were the most numerous ducks found dead along Lake Ontario also.

The duck die-off was first noticed in January along Lake Ontario. The cause is starvation. Dead ducks have nothing in their stomachs, and they are about half of their normal weight.

Ice is the culprit. Nearly all of the Great Lakes are frozen over, leaving no open water where fish eating ducks and other divers can feed.

During my most recent visit to Presque Isle Bay, earlier this week, there were two small areas with open water. But those open areas had not been there until recently. Naturally the open areas were crowded with ducks.

Apparently many ducks died after they already did not have enough energy to move elsewhere. But it is likely that some ducks found open water. For ducks which lift off Lake Erie in Pennsylvania or Chautauqua County, New York, the first open water

they might see is the Allegheny River, where it is virtually always open for several miles below the Kinzua Dam. Jeri, my wife, and I took a tour along the Allegheny River from the Kinzua Dam to Starbrick to see what ducks we could find.

Our search for ducks started disappointingly. There were fewer ducks that we often see in the Kinzua Dam tailwaters. In the upper tailwaters, what we could see from the round viewing area at the upper end of the parking area, we counted only a pair of buffleheads, seven mallards, which usually are in that area in greater numbers, two pairs of hooded mergansers, two common mergansers, and an unknown female merganser

At the lower tailwaters from the wooden wildlife observation deck, we saw six Canada geese and 10 female common golden-eyes, which very well could have been deserters from Lake Erie.

Total merganser numbers at the tailwaters were fewer than we often see there.

Driving back toward Warren along Route 59, it was impossible to make a good count of ducks. But we did spot three common goldeneyes.

Our next stop was at the dredged pool in Warren, an area which often holds numerous ducks. But here again we were disappointed with a count of nine mallards.

At Starbrick we finally saw more encouraging numbers of ducks which might have come from Lake Erie. The first stop, along Leek Island, there were six mallards, seven hooded mergansers, 11 common mergansers and at least 27 Canada Geese.

Moving upstream to the Starbrick pool, where the Starbrick Access is located, we saw seven Canada geese, nine mallards, two common mergansers, five wood ducks, two ruddy ducks, two redheads, maybe a third, and four greater scaup. The latter are much more likely to be at Presque Isle Bay during normal winter conditions.

Our last stop, at the Starbrick dredged pool, we finally saw at least a better number of what we were trying to find. In that lake-like pool, which I know from many years of fishing the area while using a sonar/fish finder is loaded with small fish, we were able to identify eight Canada geese, plus more that passed overhead, 22 mallards, 51 common mergansers, one ruddy duck, five hooded mergansers and more than 30 greater scaup. Plus there was an unknown large number of ducks that were too far away, or around the bend out of our vision, to identify.

Maybe the open water below the Kinzua Dam did save some of the ducks which might have otherwise starved.