I biked down to the Leslie Street Spit the other day to look for winter birds and brought a camera with me in case anything good turned up. “The Spit,” as it’s known in Toronto, is a former landfill in the east end of the city that juts into Lake Ontario for about five kilometers (three miles). A disused lighthouse stands at the far end, and a paved loop road makes cycling an easy affair. Otherwise, the land is covered with habitats that include wetlands, wildflower meadows, and patchy forests of cottonwood, poplar, and birch. In winter, with the wind off the lake, the place acquires an ambience so bleak and grey that it’s almost Scandinavian.
Ever since it first took shape 40 years ago, the Spit has functioned as a magnet for birds and for the people who love them. Thanks to its mix of habitats, the place attracts a wide variety of bird species—not just songbirds, but waterfowl and waders, hawks and owls, terns and gulls. More than 300 species of birds, some of them quite rare for the Toronto area, have been recorded on the Spit, and with the advent of global warming, new species are seen almost every year.
When I arrived the other day, I biked straight out to Pipit Point, the Spit’s southeast extremity and a good spot from which to scan the lake for different types of ducks and gulls. The point takes its name from the American Pipit, a robin-sized bird that forages there regularly during spring and fall migration.
When I scanned the waters around the point, I could see a pair of King Eiders quite far out. This is a type of sea duck that nests on the tundra surrounding Hudson’s Bay and that winters along the northeast coast of Canada and the United States. Eiders seem to prefer salt water to fresh, and only a few of them appear in the Great Lakes in any given year. The birds I was looking at were so distant that it was difficult to get a decent photo.
I decided to sit on the rocks at the tip of the point and see if the ducks would drift in closer. Just as I settled myself, a flock of Common Redpolls—a type of winter finch that sports a red beret and black goatee—flew in, and a few of them consented to pose for photos.
King Eiders are large, powerfully built ducks, and they’re famous divers. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they can probably “dive to greater depths than any other duck species.” The two I was watching would disappear below the water’s surface—usually together—for more than a minute at a time. When they popped into sight again, they always had something black and shiny in their bill. They were feeding on the Zebra Mussels that coat much of the floor of Lake Ontario.
After swallowing a mussel, the Eider would often rear up, look around, and flap its wings in satisfaction, the eiderly version of a victory dance.
Each time the ducks dove to get another mussel, they would resurface closer to where I was sitting. Since the day was cloudy, the light wasn’t great, but I began to get shots that showed more detail of plumage and feather patterns. I wondered how far in they would come.
Drifting closer and closer, the two ducks rounded the point and disappeared to my left. I got up and followed and was surprised to find that they’d drifted right in to shore and were feeding on the algae and barnacles that covered the boulders there.
I started taking photos of the ducks that by now were practically at my feet, and the camera clicked and buzzed. But nothing distracted the Eiders, and they continued feeding until they’d eaten their fill. Only then did they allow themselves to drift out into the lake again. As they were leaving, one of the ducks flapped her wings, as if in farewell. I watched them go, marveling over the rare gift of their presence.