Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Tufted Duck in Duluth!

Tufted Duck

A week ago, on December 11, Kim Eckert saw a weird duck in Canal Park in Duluth. The improbability of what it looked like made him tentative about his own identification, but he sent word out immediately at 11:09 am:
POSSIBLE FEMALE OR JUV TUFTED DUCK NOW IN CANAL PARK SHIPPING CHANNEL. With goldeneye flock. Looks like female scaup with inch-long horizontal tuft at hind crown. Have no scope or camera with me.
The duck disappeared when a ship came into the canal under the lift bridge, but Don Kienholz posted at 12:18 that it was back. When I saw the posts, at 1:15, I immediately headed out with my dog Pip, but I had an appointment at 2:30 so needed luck if I was going to find it quickly enough.

The only time I’ve seen a Tufted Duck in Minnesota—a hotline bird chased by lots of birders throughout the state—it was hanging out in a sewage pond somewhere near the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee rejected that sighting.

Tufted Ducks are a Eurasian species—I’ve seen them when I was in Austria and Hungary. Theoretically it’s possible that that one had escaped captivity, and so the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union decided it was possible it wasn’t truly wild.

I first saw a Tufted Duck for my life list in 2013—a wild one had been turning up at Merritt Lake, a small park right within downtown Oakland, California, for several winters running.

Tufted Duck

Tufted Duck

There are also acceptable state records in many states. Seeing one here in Duluth, genuinely wild or not, was worth a trip to Canal Park.

I ran into Larry and Jan Kramer at Canal Park, and they showed me the duck in their spotting scope. It kept its head tucked and the sky was very overcast, but at least I got an identifiable photo.

The bird was seen on Wednesday and Thursday as well. The Christmas Bird Count for Duluth was held on Saturday, so everyone was anxious about whether it would stick around for the big event. If not, it would at least be on our official “Count Week” list, but it’s of course always nicest when it’s on the Christmas Bird Count itself. Worryingly, as much as people searched, it was nowhere to be found on Friday.

Fortunately, it was back at Canal Park on Saturday, boosting our species count total to 59 based on what each group attending the compilation dinner reported. A few people who counted weren’t there, so it’s possible we’ll add one or two more species.

It’s also possible that our total will drop one after the MOU Records Committee votes on whether this bird is countable. People got excellent looks at the legs and feet—it was clearly not banded nor missing a hallux (its hind toe), vastly reducing the possibility that it had been a captive bird.

The other question is whether it is a true Tufted Duck or a hybrid of a Tufted Duck with a scaup or Ring-necked Duck. John Richardson, a wonderful birding guide who is from the UK and has lots of experience with wild Tufted Ducks said it looked perfectly normal to him. Some people speculated that the tuft on the back of the head wasn’t quite long enough for a true Tufted Duck, but internet photographs and field guide illustrations show some variability, and the tuft was pretty darned prominent even when the bird had her head tucked. To me, the possibility of a hybrid is so very speculative, especially when nothing about this bird makes it look like anything but a true Tufted Duck, that people would be grasping at straws to call this bird a hybrid rather than the much more likely possibility that it’s truly a wild Tufted Duck.

I’ll only be keeping it on my Minnesota list if the Records Committee accepts it. But my dog Pip is much less fussy—it’s staying on her list either way, a Christmas lifer. And Pip can do whatever she wants—she’s a dog.