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Tufts Grad

February 3, 2009
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First state records usually get even the most experienced birders excited. And when that bird, but coincidence or nature, is one that can be easily twitched, well, that’s a bonus. When late last Friday, such a bird was reported from Winston-Salem, just a short shot west of me at a Water Treatment Facility. Interestingly enough, precisely the same WTP that I traveled to last fall to twitch a Red-necked Phalarope. Odd then, that this exceptional bird would also show up at a none too exceptional sewage plant. More on that later.

Alright, so I’ve beat around the bush enough. “What’s the bird, already?” I can hear you yelling. The word on the wire Friday afternoon was that a Tufted Duck had been found. And the next morning most of the state’s top birders converged on the pond. I was not among them, as I have to work Saturdays. So I made plans to book it out there Sunday, only to find out that the plant was closed on Sundays. Drat.

So the entire day Sunday I was stressing that the bird would stick around even though no one was there to report whether or not it vamoosed or not. Early yesterday I headed out, waved my binoculars at the non-plussed guard, and found the smaller group of birders staked out on the bird. In seconds I had it. Lifer.

Now you may notice that the tuft, while clearly present, is far less impressive than you might expect. It was this, along with changing iridescence in the head, that caused some of the state’s top birders to consider the possibility of a Tuftie x Scaup hybrid, and the discussion on the state listserve has been interesting.

It’s certainly an important thing to consider when processing a potential first state record. But I think this bird is a legitimately pure Tufted Duck as all sources I’ve checked mention the length of the tuft as pretty variable and of course, if you’ve spent any time spent messing around with Scaup you know that iridescence can be thrown out the window most of the time.

Additionally, the back is purely black with no hint of gray like you might expect with a hybrid, and the flanks are bright white and rectangular. The head shape is legit and not indicative of either Lesser or Greater Scaup. Sizewise, it was smaller than the female Lesser Scaup in the same pond and even slighter than the Ring-necked Ducks with which it was associating. In short, everything else checks out. But I’d be curious what any visitors from Europe have to say about it.

What was even cooler than the Tuftie though, was that this tiny pond, no more than 100 meters wide, hosted not one, but two additional uncommon ducks. They were, in fact, the reason folks were at the pond in the first place. First, a juvenile White-winged Scoter, uncommon this far inland.

And second, a female Common Goldeneye, an uncommon winter resident in Carolina. It was a new state bird and a species I spent a fair bit of time trying to track down in my Big Year just over a month ago. I had hoped that I might wait a tad longer for that particular slap in the face, but, so it goes.

I’ve already listed the Tufted Duck on my life and state lists, obviously it’s provisional to what the NC Rare Bird Committee decides, but as many of them have seen this bird in the past few days, I think it’s going to be a pretty straight forward addition to the state list.

I’m just glad it stuck around.

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13 Comments
  1. nishiki_85 permalink
    February 3, 2009 8:28 am

    I wish my Mondays were as exciting! Awesome birds N8! Hard to find any birds, let alone a Tufted Duck, on the lagoons in my region this time of year.

  2. corey permalink
    February 3, 2009 8:57 am

    Nice bird(s)!

    Does this make up for missing the Ivory Gull(s)?

  3. February 3, 2009 9:17 am

    @nishiki – There’s some speculation that it was the deep freeze up north that pushed the bird to find open water in NC. There are a couple Va records, but none this far south before now.

    @corey – Not quite… but I’ll take it just the same.

  4. Patrick Belardo permalink
    February 3, 2009 9:39 am

    Nice! Congrats!

  5. Owlman permalink
    February 3, 2009 11:16 am

    Cool birds. What an incredible site. I bet the Ivory still hurts though 😉

  6. Greg permalink
    February 3, 2009 8:05 pm

    Has anyone questioned the “origin of the bird”? That was always the question when the Smew showed up at RMBS in Missouri, right up to the day the MBRC added it to the state list. Any exotic waterfowl breeders in the area?

  7. February 3, 2009 10:56 pm

    @owlman- It does, and here I was just getting over it too…@dad- provenence was definitely a thought early on. Several birders talked to some waterfowl breeders in the area and none reported even having Tufted Duck, so it seems legitimately wild.

  8. Jochen permalink
    February 4, 2009 4:40 am

    Okay, here’s the comment from a European reader:

    Sorry mate, clearly a hybrid.

    Haaaaa, kidding!!

    Naah, I don’t see any features that would strongly point towards a hybrid influence. If a hybrid influence is to be discussed at all, I’d say a Ring-neck would have to be taken into account, but the bird doesn’t look like the known hybrids between these two (and certainly not like a hybrid with Scaup). It looks like nothing more but a plain ol’ boring Tufted… (cheers!).

    The short tuft is not a big issue, this is quite variable. Indeed, I wonder if the bird is not an older immature male. I actually have no idea how to age ducks beyond their second calendar year, but I do know it can be done. That would likely explain the shorter tuft. Additionally, I find it peculiar that the tertials (? or some feathers on the folded wing, I suppose they are tertials) are strongly bleached and brownish. Might be a hint towards an older immature.
    Whatever: it looks like a normal Tufty, and if people have an issue with short tuft or whatever-the-frog, it may be worth trying to age the bird properly as an explanation.

    By the way: congrats!

  9. February 4, 2009 9:05 am

    @jochen – Thanks, I knew I could count on you.

    Incidentally, the brownish in the folded wing is more likely a function of my terrible photograph more than anything. It wasn’t anything I noticed in the bird while it was in front of me.

  10. Jochen permalink
    February 4, 2009 10:54 am

    here is a link to a huge gallery (birdpix.nl highly recommended) of tufted ducks.

    http://www.birdpix.nl/album_search.php?search_type=pic_english_name&search=Tufted+duck&personal_album=0

    Check out the picture from Jan 28, 2006.

  11. Jochen permalink
    February 9, 2009 6:05 am

    Here is a link to a hybrid Tufted x Ring-necked.
    Notice the bill colouration which your bird lacks.

    http://www3.hi.is/~yannk/myndir/rarity/sa_aytcxf050209.jpg

  12. February 9, 2009 12:07 pm

    @jochen- Thanks for the links. I haven’t heard any further discussion on hybrids so I think if the RBC is comfortable with provenance, it’ll be a slam dunk.

  13. Jochen permalink
    February 10, 2009 7:20 am

    Or rather a slam duck?

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