For the Birds Radio Program: Masked Duck
Masked Duck Now that I’ve been birding for 35 years and have been to most of the birding hotspots in the lower 48, it’s increasingly difficult for me to add new birds to my life list. And since I’ve been working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I’ve been too busy to get out birding much at all. Until I took this job, I’ve had at least a few lifers every calendar year except 1985, when I had a 1- and a 3-year old, and was pregnant and then had a newborn. Now I ironically find myself writing about birds so much that I haven’t had a chance to bird much at all, and I didn’t see a single lifer in 2008 or 2009. But in January this year I got to spend a few days in Titusville, Florida, at the Space Coast Birding Festival, where I finally broke my dry spell at the Viera Wetlands—a lovely sewage treatment pond complex where a Masked Duck has been hanging out for the past few winters. It’s weird to be told there is a Masked Duck at one particular spot in a large wetlands, so you drive there, and a bunch of cars are already right there, with several spotting scopes focused on the bird. It takes away all the sense of accomplishment in adding a new lifer. Fortunately, the little duck was beautiful and cooperative, and I out-stayed the others there, so I at least got some quality time with him. I got hundreds of photos, of which I’ve put 56 on the Internet at my flickr.com page. And some of the photos are lovely, thanks entirely to the beauty of my little subject. The Masked Duck is an adorable little relative of the Ruddy Duck, native from northern Argentina north through South America east of the Andes and Central America up through south Texas. It’s a hotline bird when it does turn up in the states. Oddly, the first sighting ever in the states wasn’t from the South, but from Wisconsin in 1870—this bird may have been an escaped captive bird. Since then, Masked Ducks have been irregular visitors to Louisiana and Florida and residents of Texas, the only state where nesting has been documented. Adult males, like the bird I saw, are a rich rusty color with dark spots on the back and a black mask. My bird was tinier than the other birds around it in the marsh, but he held his own in a faceoff with two Common Moorhens and tweaked the tail of a Ring-necked Duck to drive the larger ring-neck away. There is a surprising dearth of information about Masked Ducks compared to most birds. We know that these tiny diving ducks mainly feed on seeds, roots and leaves of aquatic plants, and that they also eat aquatic insects and crustaceans. Males stay with females as the females incubate their clutch, which has only 4-6 eggs, fewer than most ducks. In Texas, two birds in female or immature plumage took care of four ducklings, so there is some speculation that cooperative breeding may play a role in this species. But overall, this secretive little bird has eluded the efforts of scientists to tease out its habits. Secretive as they usually are, the Masked Duck I saw last month stayed in the open close to the road, thrilling me and everyone else who saw him. The world is filled with so many wonders that none of us can possibly be aware of all of them. But I’m glad my own world of wonders expanded by one.