Great lakes Winter Sea Duck Survey

Project Number: 83
Year Funded: 2006
Lead Institution(s): Long Point Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Fund
Project Lead: Scott Petrie
Collaborator(s): Shannon Badzinski (LPWWRF), Ken Ross (CWS), Norm North (CWS)
Location: Great Lakes
Focal Species: All Sea Ducks, Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), Barrow’s Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica), Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus), Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis), Common Eider (Somateria mollissima), King Eider (Somateria spectabilis), Spectacled Eider (Somateria fischeri), Steller’s Eider (Polysticta stelleri), Common Merganser (Mergus merganser), Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator), Black Scoter (Melanitta americana), Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata), White-winged Scoter (Melanitta delgandi)
Project Description: Since the late 1980s / early 1990s, non-native zebra and quagga mussels have greatly increased throughout the lower Great Lakes. During the same time, winter diving duck and sea duck use has increased greatly, especially on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario, in response to the increase in prey abundance and milder winter conditions. This increase in winter duck use resulted in the initiation of the Lower Great Lakes (LGL) January Survey in 2002.

The LGL January Survey is an annual (2002-2006), coordinated Canadian and US aerial waterfowl survey of lakes Ontario, Erie, and St. Clair. The survey is flown in early-mid January (similar time to the Mid-winter Survey at traditional wintering areas) to estimate numbers of wintering waterfowl along shorelines of the Canadian and US sides of the LGL. The LGL January Survey provides data on numbers of dabbling ducks and Canada Geese, but also on several diving duck and sea duck species, most notably Long-tailed Ducks (LTDU). For example, an average of 50,214 LTDU were counted each January during the LGL January Survey, and > 90% of those birds were located on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario. Based on these survey results, the northern portions of Lake Ontario have been identified as the most important wintering area for LTDU on the LGL.

The LGL January Survey currently only is flown along shoreline habitat and detects waterfowl that are up to 1 km off shore. As a result, the survey likely provides reasonably good estimates for species that frequent shoreline or nearshore habitats. Some diving duck species, particularly sea ducks (e.g. LTDU, scoter spp, etc.), often forage far offshore because of their deep diving abilities. Thus, the LGL January Survey, like most other standard shoreline surveys, may only record a very small portion of LTDU and scoter spp actually present given that many others may be as far as 10 km off shore. It was therefore necessary to carry out reconnaissance surveys over a wide range of distances from shore in order to establish a better survey framework (survey intensity, stratification, etc.) for sea ducks. These improvements, in turn, should improve the reliability of population estimates and provide added information for geographic distribution and broad-scale habitat use of wintering sea ducks on the LGL.
Project Reports:
Great lakes Winter Sea Duck Survey