23 February 2018

Tufted Duck still present in Jack's Creek, but many ducks have apparently already left

F 23 Feb 2018

We had a special two day, overnight survey on Bulls this past Monday and Tuesday, 19 to 20 Mar 2018. John Cox and Kent Bedenbaugh were able to join me for what is always a more relaxed and enjoyable survey effort capped off by an overnight stay in the Dominick House on Bulls. We weren’t the only birders on the island though as the house was full of shorebird researchers, a couple of whom are staying in the house from January through April and about a dozen of whom were there for a few days and nights attempting to net and band shorebirds. John, Kent, and I watched the sun set across the marsh (John and Kent both saw the green flash through their binoculars, I missed seeing it without my binoculars) then we watched the sun rise over the Boneyard Beach the next morning. Over the two day survey we tallied 80 species of birds.

The Tufted Duck (TUDU) has been seen by several other birders and is being listed on eBird checklists as a “continuing bird at this location.” We were fortunate enough to see the TUDU from three different vantage points around Jack’s Creek: from the Old Fort, from the elbow of the emergency dike oceanfront at Jack’s, and from the Observation Deck at the terminus of Sheepshead Ridge Road. Each time the TUDU was easily located floating, apparently contentedly, with Ruddy Ducks and an occasional Lesser Scaup. Scopes were needed to confirm the duck’s identity, but we could easily see the TUDU with binoculars as being different from the other ducks. Most of the Lesser Scaup that the TUDU was associated with when we originally located it appear to be gone. Seems somewhat early for waterfowl migration, at least according to the calendar, but this is why we tally the birds in the first place. I’ve begun looking at the big picture of six years of survey data and will next look at waterfowl in Jack’s trying to get a specific handle on spring migration dates. I’m hoping that the TUDU will hang out in Jack’s until the next survey.

I was pleased to get a fair look at the shorebirds for the first time this winter. Having missed several survey dates in both December and January, and then being distracted by the Tufted Duck in early February, I’ve missed shorebird surveying opportunities since November. I was disappointed to find absolutely no shorebirds on the North Beach on Monday. We did see a few Black Scoters and Northern Gannets in the waters off the beach plus numerous gulls, terns, and pelicans on Bird Key Bulls Bay (the sand bar in Bulls Bay off the North Beach), but nothing at all on the sands of the North Beach itself. I believe that this is the first time in my survey efforts that the North Beach had no shorebirds of any species or number. It’s not the high tide shorebird roost that it used to be. The beach itself appears to recovering nicely from the effects of Hurricanes Matthew and Irma offering good shelling, slowly growing dunes and vegetation, and its usual constant shoreline flux.

There were fair numbers of shorebirds, however, in the oceanfront saltwater marsh at Jack’s. The shorebird researchers, about a dozen of them, were on site in that marsh setting up drop nets trying to net some of the shorebirds. Fortunately we were able to survey the shorebirds present before they were ready to drop their net. I don’t think that we interfered with their effort nor do I feel that they interfered with our effort. We did tally two Piping Plovers, both banded birds that we’ve seen on Bulls before, and a Wilson’s Plover along with the expected Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Semipalmated Plovers. Unfortunately for the banders the birds didn’t cooperate; the birds didn’t walk under the net set, refused to be corralled towards the net, and ultimately flew off to the beaches as the tides were dropping thus exposing apparently good feeding grounds. 

On Tuesday morning, after watching the sun rise over the Boneyard Beach and after looking, unsuccessfully, for the TUDU again in Jack’s (from the Observation Deck), we spent about an hour birding the grounds around the Dominick House, one of my favorite birding locations. In that hour we tallied 26 species including a White-eyed Vireo. The highlight of Tuesday’s survey was a large, loose raft of Black Scoter off the front beach (though not in the defined survey area proper). Both Upper Summerhouse Pond and Lower Summerhouse Pond were slow birding, so we spent much of that time looking at all the American alligators hauled out enjoying the warm February day.


05 February 2018

A rare Eurasian visitor to Bulls: Tufted Duck

Sun 4 Dec 2018

Bulls Island is a special place, even among the many wonderful natural settings along the S.C. coast. Last June Bulls hosted a (likely), first S.C. record Black-whiskered Vireo (BWVI). That Floridian and Caribbean specialist species, closely related to our summer resident Red-eyed Vireo, found something of value on Bulls. I wrote about that BWVI on an earlier post to this blog dated 14 June 2017. Once again Bulls has produced another (possible) first state record sighting, this time of of a Tufted Duck (TUDU). This abundant species is normally distributed throughout Europe, Northern Africa, northern Asia, and Southeast Asia but is a known rare visitor to North America, usually along the western coast from Alaska south to California. It is listed as a rare to very rare visitor to the eastern coast of North America, but that status was sufficient that it even got included on the artist’s plate of bay ducks of my trusty 1980 Peterson [east] Guide.

David Youngblood joined me last Friday for our ongoing waterfowl/shorebird survey on Bulls Island. We had just arrived at the Old Fort on the bay side of Jack’s Creek, our first stop on the survey, and were scoping ducks that were out on the open water of Jack’s. We started scoping from the roadway where we were partially hidden from the birds and before we walked out to the open edge of Jack’s; we wanted to see what we could before possibly flushing the ducks as we walked out. From that location, and mostly looking into the sun on a brightly overcast morning, we started calling out duck species including Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe (okay, they’re not a duck proper, but they are “ducky”), Gadwall, and Ring-necked Duck (RNDU). RNDU are not common on Bulls so I was trying to get a positive view for identification. That RNDU call turned out to be premature.

My eye kept being drawn back to one floating duck with a bright white flank. The more I looked at that clean white side the more the duck’s very dark, even black, back drew my attention. After a very quick mental accounting I couldn’t recall any expected duck species with such a sharp contrast between a dark back (what duck has a black back, I kept thinking to myself) and a bright white side? About that time I focused on the duck’s head that it was keeping tucked between its wings and noticed an obvious feather tuft being blown around in the wind. I’d never seen any duck with a tuft on its head, but I did recall seeing such a species in a field guide. Couldn’t be, I thought as a hustled back for my paper field guides. But there it was in my Peterson Guide, a Tufted Duck. 

Exciting prospect, indeed. Quick, take photos! Study through the scope. All seems right for a Tufted Duck. Move closer but still partially hidden then repeat photos and scope study. Convinced. What else could it be? Just how many ducks are there with dark head and neck, dark back, dark butt, and a strikingly-contrasting bright white flank, yellow eye, and showing a distinct feather tuft on its head? We finally moved fully out to the edge and as close to the flotilla of ducks as we could get. David Youngblood took many photos and videos and I took what I hoped would be documentary digiscope images with my iPhone camera. 

Boy, we’ve gotta tell someone about this! Just then Sarah Dawsey, Cape Romain NWR Refuge Manager, pulled up to the Old Fort with a couple of alligator sleuths and began unloading a jon boat. I ran over and eagerly motioned for them to come see this rare duck that we were watching. What better confirmation of our finding than by the Refuge Manager! They were gracious and respectful of our sighting, but David and I were wearing ourselves out with excitement! [Their alligator story was also compelling. Seems there had been a recent die off of American alligators across the island. They were there to haul out and necropsy those gators. Five of the 8 gators had stomachs full of ducks. This was largely an unexpected observation as it’s generally thought that alligators don’t eat much during the cold of winter; they need warmth from the sun to properly aid in digestion. Though David and I saw many, many alligators out warming in the overcast sun on Friday, they’re still trying to figure out possible causes of this particular alligator die off.]

We were absolutely convinced that we were watching a Tufted Duck. Here’s the description that I wrote for our eBird checklist (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S42446245): “Scaup-sized, dark head showing distinct tuft, dark back, dark butt, bright white sides below folded wings. Dark throat and upper breast ends sharply to a bright white lower breast. Yellow eye. Bright white sides contrasts very sharply and with razor-sharp borders to the dark head/back/butt. Tuft seen clearly on bird resting with bill tucked between wings and when holding head up alertly.”

Photo by David Youngblood.

Photo by David Youngblood.

In all we spent more than 2 hours watching, studying, photographing, and videoing this one duck. Unfortunately that meant that we had really missed the morning’s high tide that pushes the shorebirds to high tide roosts. So we missed almost all the shorebirds for the day, but the consolation was a rare Eurasian Tufted Duck, possibly a first state record. David has graciously shared this link to his Flickr page where many of the photos and several of his videos are available for viewing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/55533409@N08/ 

I was back on Bulls Island yesterday, Saturday 3 Feb 2018, leading a field trip for the Charleston Natural History Society. Coastal Expeditions and Captain Chris Crolley dropped us off on the North Beach from where we walked to the Old Fort on Jack’s to look for the Tufted Duck. Along with a few other birders chasing the Tufted Duck that morning we had several scopes searching among a flotilla of 1600 Lesser Scaup and Ruddy Ducks, but failed to relocate the Tufted Duck. Given that collective effort, I’m confident that we had a better than even chance of spotting the TUDU had it been there in that raft. Our consolation for the day’s field trip was a tally of 84 species on the day including Northern Pintail, American Black Duck, Mallard (not at all common on Bulls), Ring-necked Duck, Bald Eagle, several passerine species (that I mostly don’t see on my surveys because I’m usually looking out onto the water), and very few shorebirds (we skipped looking for shorebirds to look instead at ducks).

Our next survey on Bulls will be a special 2-day overnight survey on Mon 19 Feb 2018 to Tues 20 Feb 2018. Anyone want to stay overnight in the Dominick House? Hopefully the Tufted Duck will hang out until then.


P.S. I’ve come to understand that there is an ongoing discussion about our Tufted Duck ID on the ABA Rare Bird Alert Facebook page. A suggestion has been made that this specific duck may in fact be a hybrid individual between a Tufted Duck and a Ring-necked Duck. We are also awaiting confirmation from the eBird reviewers. We’ll soon submit a report to the S.C. state bird records committee but don’t expect a decision from them for several months.