Lesser Scaup

February 22nd, 2020: A visit to Burnaby Lake

I hadn’t gotten out much this week and was looking for a spot I could take public transit to that I didn’t visit often. Burnaby Lake Regional Park was the perfect choice!

One of the trails set back from the marshy lakefront at Burnaby Lake
One of the trails set back from the marshy lakefront at Burnaby Lake

It’s got a nice mix of habitats and a good mix of birds, even in the winter. Burnaby Lake has had some impressive rarities in the past too. A few years ago, a Grasshopper Sparrow even showed up!

Northern Pintail square dance
Northern Pintail square dance

I thought of my first trip to Burnaby Lake, which was one of my first twitches. A friend and I thought we’d go to try to find some White-winged Crossbills that had been reported. We didn’t find them, but we found a great birding spot we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. That was a long time ago…

Looks like there's a North American Beaver at Burnaby Lake...
Looks like there’s a North American Beaver at Burnaby Lake…

Now when I visit Burnaby Lake in the winter, I know to expect a good mix of dabbling and shallow-diving ducks, a mix of passerines in the conifer-lined trails along the water, and maybe some overwintering (or early) swallows or Long-billed Dowitcher. As it turned out, that’s exactly what I got!

Looking west across Burnaby Lake from Piper Spit
Looking west across Burnaby Lake from Piper Spit

The best place at Burnaby Lake is Piper Spit. You’re likely to see photographers and families there, especially now that there’s a Mandarin Duck (likely escaped, so not on my eBird list). It was actually hanging out with and courting a female Wood Duck.

The odd couple: a (likely escaped) Mandarin Duck and his female Wood Duck friend
The odd couple: a (likely escaped) Mandarin Duck and his female Wood Duck friend

In this same area, you’ll find your usual dabblers: Mallard, Wood Duck, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, and Lesser Scaup (no Gadwall or American Wigeon today).

Two male Wood Duck at Burnaby Lake
Two male Wood Duck at Burnaby Lake

I got some nice diagnostic photos of some Lesser Scaup today and was able to appreciate some of the minimal differences between them and their Greater counterparts. In Vancouver, if you’re in shallow fresh water, you’re most likely looking at Lesser Scaup. And if you’re in deeper salt water, you’re likely seeing Greater Scaup. This isn’t so reliable elsewhere on the continent. And it’s not exactly reliable here. But if you have 200 scaup on a fresh water pond/lake in Vancouver, all but somewhere between 0 and 10 will likely be Lessers (and vice versa).

Looking southeast from Piper Spit (the small flock of Lesser Scaup are barely visible at the tip of the boardwalk)
Looking southeast from Piper Spit (the small flock of Lesser Scaup are barely visible at the tip of the boardwalk)

Telling these two species apart can be tough. The Greaters are barely a shade bigger on average, and other distinguishing features are small. They’re pretty quiet ducks too, so you’re not likely to hear them (their calls aren’t that different either).

There are basically three things you can watch for. 1) The bill is broader and larger in Greater Scaup, and the black tip (particularly in breeding males) is more prominent and wider. 2) The dark barring on the backs of both ducks extends all the way to the flanks in Lessers, where Greaters tend to have cleaner flanks/sides (this is again most evident in males). 3) The shape of the head in Greaters is more rounded overall, with the peak much closer to the forehead: in Lessers the peak is near the back, usually with a visible “notch” at the back of the head. This last field mark is the best for both sexes and is the one I use most.

A pair of Lesser Scaup at Burnaby Lake
A pair of Lesser Scaup at Burnaby Lake: note the clear notch at the back of the male’s head, less pronounced on this female

Lesser Scaup are widespread in North America, wintering further south than any other aythya (genus) duck: as far south as the Caribbean even! They’re also the most abundant diving duck in North America and estimates put them at about 3.8 million worldwide. I love catching these ducks in bright light (not today) where you can see a beautiful green/purple iridescence in their faces.

Here's a tougher one. Greater or Lesser? A good hint is that it's also at Burnaby Lake, so it's probably Lesser. But it's got a round-looking head and less upright posture, suggesting Greater. Look at the head shape though. See how it's still highest at the back, not up toward the forehead? This is a Lesser Scaup.
Here’s a tougher one. Greater or Lesser? A good hint is that it’s also at Burnaby Lake, so it’s probably Lesser. But it’s got a round-looking head and less upright posture, suggesting Greater. Look at the head shape though. See how it’s still highest at the back, not up toward the forehead?
Here is a Greater Scaup from Audubon's site (I don't have a good shot yet). Note the very different head shape and posture.
Here is a Greater Scaup from Audubon’s site (I don’t have a good shot). Note the very different head shape and posture.

I spent a little while with the ducks on Piper Spit. I counted 93 Long-billed Dowitcher today too, plus a Wilson’s Snipe, and a cacophony of Northwestern Crow and Red-winged Blackbird. Then I walked east to the dam, taking the looping conifer route to find some more passerines. There wasn’t a lot of finch activity today, just a few Pine Siskin and House Finch. But there were lots and lots of other passerines. Especially Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Black-capped Chickadee, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Pacific Wren, American Robin, and Varied Thrush (the latter was singing even).

Part of a conifer trail at Burnaby Lake
Part of a conifer trail at Burnaby Lake

On my way out, I heard a Bewick’s Wren just off the trail too. And I was very pleased to see 4 early Tree Swallows. I’m pretty optimistic, but, isn’t spring still a little ways off?

The view from Piper Spit at Burnaby Lake: how many species do you see/hear?

P. S. I’ll likely not be able to post in the next few weeks. But I’ll upload a few in late March to get caught up. Be sure to follow WeeklyBirder so you don’t miss a post! And keep an eye on Instagram in the meantime.

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