A Visit To The Burlington Ship Canal

Located at the extreme western end of Lake Ontario, the city of Hamilton sits on a large, shallow bay which is connected to the big lake by the Burlington Ship Canal. The canal – 385 feet (118 m) wide and 4,594 feet (1.4 km) long – always has some sort of current flowing through it, whether driven by winds or simply draining the multitude creeks which feed the bay, so it’s a natural gathering point for a variety of birds. It’s protected by two long piers – one on either side – which extend for some distance into the lake.

A mid-July errand took me fairly close by the canal, so I decided to stop in for a look. As with every visit, this one was thoroughly rewarding.

Burlington Ship Canal – ships, boats and even jumping fish!

The picture pretty much sums up the canal – big ships, pleasure boats (this one obviously ignoring the 10 mph speed limit) and the occasional jumping fish.

As luck had it, my arrival coincided with that of a large lake freighter, the M/V Kaministiqua. This was good news, since the huge ship passing through the canal would attract a lot of birds. Big freighters might extend 25 feet or more into the water, and the canal is barely 30 feet deep. As they pass through they tend to stir things up, ringing the dinner bell for the birds and large fish that tend to follow them around.

As the ship approached, the locals began to stir. At this time of year the canal is mostly occupied by herring gulls, common terns and double-crested cormorants. Swarms of them follow the freighters, and as the ship drew closer, more and more birds took to the air.

Double-crested cormorant waking up with the ship’s arrival.

Adult and juvenile herring gulls.

As the ship approaches, they take to the air …

… ready to feast on the fish it stirs up.

Common terns appear out of nowhere, closely following the ship.

They’re fast and crazy agile, and tough to photograph.

Cormorants get in on the action.

Today’s lunch – an invasive round goby. Good job!

Gulls and terns follow the ship into the harbour

Mmmmmm …. fish!

Lake Ontario has more than its share of cormorants. Thanks to much improved water quality, their numbers have rebounded sharply in the past 20 years after declining steadily through much of the 20th Century. I was quite happy to watch one take advantage of the passing freighter, fly into the canal, and promptly catch itself a round goby – an invasive species of fish that came to the Great Lakes from Europe several years ago, ironically enough by hitching rides across the Atlantic in the ballast water of freighters. Gulls and terns picked stunned fish from the water surface all around me, closely following the big ship.

Birds now all in the water, the pier surface gives an idea of just how many there are.

With the excitement of the passing freighter over, I turned my attention from the canal to the lake, where a number of ducks and geese were loafing along the shoreline. The ducks were all mallards, including some fairly scruffy looking males not quite finished replacing their beautiful breeding plumage with drabber summer feathers. All around me ducks were alternately bathing in the shallow water or enjoying the fresh vegetation. A woman with two small children was watching them tip up to feed, her boys clearly delighted with being repeatedly mooned by the feeding ducks, giggling and pointing out “Look at his bum!” over and over. It was quite cute, really.

Mallards tipping up to feed in the shallow water seemed to delight some small children nearby.

Drake mallards look fairly drab in their duller summer plumage.

A few still looked a bit scruffy, having not yet completed molting.

It must feel good to get rid of the old feathers.

At one point I was followed by an inquisitive Canada goose.

There were more ducks and geese feeding along the harbour end of the canal, along with several swans, including introduced mute swans and the native Trumpeter swans. Most of the birds were clearly banded, as part of an ongoing effort to monitor their population and breeding success. Like the cormorants, swans on the Great Lakes have also been experiencing a resurgence thanks to ongoing water quality initiatives. Hamilton Harbour was once among the most seriously polluted spots on the Great Lakes and, although much work remains to be done, the changes today are unmistakable. The appearance of swans, terns and literally thousands of cormorants in a highly commercialized area speaks to the success of these habitat improvement programs.

Mute swan.

Native Trumpeter swans.

The harbour is still an active shipping port, but the success of habitat restoration efforts clearly evident.

Walking back to the truck I found myself accosted by two other locals – friendly grey squirrels and some house sparrows that are known to hang out along the path in the hope of getting treats. Although they put on a good show, I had nothing for them. That’s when it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen any pigeons yet. In the past there were clouds of them. Now, not a one. Evidently, the appearance of a peregrine falcon nest on one of the canal bridges has made an impact.

No rewards for this cute beggar …

… or this one either. My failure to dispense peanuts made me instantly unpopular with the locals.

All in all my side trip to the Burlington Ship Canal was, as always, an enjoyable little diversion. I’m looking forward to returning in the fall, when it attracts large numbers of migrating waterfowl.



About Craig Ritchie

Craig Ritchie was born in Toronto and has always held a deep fascination with nature and wildlife. After an initial attempt at putting a bird feeder in the yard led to confrontations with gangs of house sparrows and mischievous raccoons, he set out to learn more about birds and birding, sharing those discoveries on his blog. Craig currently divides his time between southern Ontario and Prince Edward Island.
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2 Responses to A Visit To The Burlington Ship Canal

  1. Craig Ritchie says:

    Thanks Pat. And I know what you mean, it seems very strange to enjoy such a diverse range of wildlife as you stand in the shadow of a steel mill. Yet birds, fish, amphibians and mammals now thrive there. It really speaks to the power of nature.

  2. Pat Bumstead says:

    What a great post. I would never have equated several tons of metal with a good birding opportunity. Learn something new every day…