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.