For the Birds Radio Program: Tufted Duck
On January 1, a bird that is abundant in Europe and Asia but extremely rare in the United States appeared at the Blue Lake Sewage Lagoons in Shakopee, Minnesota. Yes, in the land of 10,000 lakes including the largest lake in the world, a female Tufted Duck decided that the Blue Lake Sewage Lagoons were more to her liking. She was carefully identified by Bob Janssen, one of Minnesota’s premier birders, and within hours, Bob had marshaled the forces and birders gathered at the sewage lagoons in force.
The Tufted Duck is a diving duck related to scaups and the Ring-necked Duck. Males have the bluish beak of a scaup and black back and white sides of a Ring-neck, but without the Ring-neck’s flourishing demarcation between the black and white. Females are as dark as scaup, but without the white facial marking at the base of the bill. Tufted Ducks would look like a hybrid except for one unique feature—a little tuft of feathers at the back of their head like a ponytail. The tuft is longer in males, but even females can be easily recognized by this little ponytail.
Tufted Ducks live in Europe and Asia and winter in Africa. So what was one doing in Shakopee at a sewage lagoon? Wild Tufted Ducks have turned up over the years in most of the coastal states, and there are records from Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. I don’t know why individuals of some species are prone to getting lost than those of other species. Fork-tailed Flycatchers and Green Violetears from the tropics and beyond, Great Black-backed Gulls from the East Coast, Varied Thrushes from the West Coast, and Bramblings from northern Europe and Asia somehow manage to get lost here in the middle of America every now and then, while most species stay pretty much where they’re supposed to. It’s one of the mysteries of ornithology, but the kind of lovely mystery that doesn’t require an answer—sort of an “ours is not to reason why. Ours is just to head out to the sewage pond and add an exotic bird to our lifelist.”
So on January 4, 2000, I headed down to the cities. I hooked up with my birding buddy Holly in Forest Lake and we drove down to Shakopee together. Every serious Minnesota birder who could get away had gone on New Years Day or the day after. This was Tuesday, a weekday, and yet when we arrived there were already three carloads of birders from the Twin Cities and Rochester. We started our search at the side of the pond near the entrance, where we saw a huge number of Mallards, a lot of goldeneyes, some Hooded Mergansers and Bufflehead, and a small number of Canada Geese. But we didn’t see any scaup or Ring-necked Ducks, and these were the species the Tufted Duck was supposed to be hanging out with. The other birders were all looking in the water in the same direction, which looked promising, and one of the cars of birders drove up to us and told us they’d found the duck at the far end.
Any time you add a lifer it’s exciting. It’s especially satisfying when you’re the one who discovers the bird in the first place. With a staked-out bird like this, it feels good to be the one to pick it out for everyone else. Even without either of these satisfactions, the sweet camaraderie of a group of birders all enjoying the same bird is wonderful. Our duck swam in the midst of lots of Mallards—all the scaup and all but one of the Ring-necks had disappeared. This Tufted Duck stuck it out for at least several days after we saw her, gracing life and year lists for countless birders. Eventually she’ll move on. Whether she returns to Europe or takes in more sights on her American tour, we’re awfully glad that she made a stop at the Blue Lake Sewage Lagoon.