Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mystery Duck in ND: Part 2

Tuesday, June 23, 2009
A clear side view of the mystery duck, showing the red-orange spot on the bill.

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.

This female was hanging close to the odd-looking male.

The pair on the lake, swimming away from us and the other scaup present.

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...


On June 23, 2009 at 2:50 PM Patrick Belardo said...

Incredibly cruel Bill. I thought we'd have an answer today.

On June 23, 2009 at 4:49 PM Keith said...

One comment and one question:

Comment: I think it's a scaup with a marker (as you surmise) or some other human-caused anomaly, perhaps something as far-fetched as paint. It's just too red.

Question: Did you see its nail at the tip of the bill?

On June 23, 2009 at 5:13 PM Rondeau Ric said...

Is Paul Harvey guest bloging tomorrow with... the rest of the story..?

On June 23, 2009 at 7:50 PM KatDoc said...

Oh, no ! You are a cruel, cruel man, BT3! You can't leave us hanging for another day!

After yesterday's comments, I looked up Rosy-billed Pochard, and decided it wasn't that, b/c of the color/pattern of its back,which I thought looked much more scaup-like.

But, I didn't know what to think about the red-orange bill. I'm beginning to lean towards the "weird marker" theory, but your continuing story implies something else.

Hurry, hurry - tell us, already!!!

~Kathi, the impatient one

On June 23, 2009 at 7:59 PM Paula Sullivan said...

Cancel my comment of yesterday. These photos are more revealing. No red knob at the base of the bill. The red color really seems painted on. I've joined the "weird marker" bandwagon.

On June 24, 2009 at 10:59 AM rmharvey said...

So what sort of hybrid will it be?

On July 1, 2009 at 3:20 AM Tanya said...

Hmmm, that was interesting. Looks like. Somethings will always remain mystery.

I myself has been trying to solve the mystery of the legend that forces you to have "earn it before

having it", for a wile now. Could not understand much though.

Let me know in case you get to understand the mystery of the

Old Hound and the Legend

By the way, good writing style. I'd love to read more on smiliar topics