Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Posted by Bill of the Birds at 11:08 AM
And now back to our mystery duck in North Dakota....
We watched the mystery red-billed duck for 20 minutes and during that time it became increasingly wary, it seemed—moving to the far end of the small lake and swimming into the thin vegetation there, as if to hide. We noticed that a female lesser scaup was with this apparently male bird, but we had no explanation for the weird color on his bill.
Through my spotting scope, despite the wind and distance, we could see that the red-orange on the bill did not appear to be blood from an injury. The color was wrong.
When you are in the field (and far from your reference library of field guides) looking at an odd bird, it can be difficult to remain calm and rational. Your heart starts pounding, your eyes get big, and your brain, which has been running on 1/3 power for most of the day, suddenly finds the energy and enough working synapses to leap to some spectacular (and usually wrong) conclusions. Surely this is something fantastic—a first North American record! Or at least a first for the continental U.S. You'd even settle for a first state record for North Dakota...it's GOT to be at least that good.
Soon the bird was too far away for reliable views, so we headed down highway 36, headed west into the coteau. But we kept debating our ideas and impressions about this bird. We felt reasonably sure that this bird was a scaup or a scaup relative. I had a feeling this was a regular lesser scaup with some sort of physical anomaly or, perhaps, some sort of bill marker placed there by a researcher. Julie was not giving up on the fact that this could be either an escaped bird from an exotic waterfowl facility or zoo, or a true vagrant that ended up far from its normal range. Secretly, I wanted her to be right because it would be so much cooler if the bird turned out to be something from far away.
A few things bothered us about my assumption that this was just an odd scaup. First of all the bird looked duller in color than the other male lesser scaup around it. Secondly, its head shape was flatter and less pointed than other males we could see. This made the head/bill shape look more canvasback-like than scaup-like. Thirdly, it behaved weirdly (swimming with its body and head low to the water, as if in a submissive pose) when several other male scaup approached it and what we assumed was its/his mate.
It was all too much to let go unresolved. We made a point to return to the same pond on our way back to Jamestown after our route-scouting trip was done. Five hours later, about 4 pm, we pulled over alongside the road to scan the pond that, earlier in the day, had held the weird duck. There were scaup there, but none with an orange-red bill. Where was it? Had we let the discovery of a lifetime slip away? Had we let a species new to science (Thompson's scaup or maybe Zickefoose's pochard) flap away on the cool prairie wind?
Tune in tomorrow for the rest of the story...
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