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Friday, January 13, 2012

What the Winds Blew In

Every now and again the winds blow some poor bird out of Asia or Russia and into California; December 2011 was such a time. A Eurasian teal of the species know as 'Falcated Duck', found itself in the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.

What's the big deal? Well imagine for a minute if mammals could get blown off course, ending up in California's central valley. You might be driving along Highway 50, look out the window and see a bewildered looking Prezwalski's wild horse, or perhaps a forlorn Panda or lost Snow Leopard. Is finding a lost bird blown so far off course is really less worthy of comment than finding a lost Eurasian mammal? Of course not, and that's why birders are driving & flying from all over North America to see one little lost duck.

Here below is a license plate I spotted in the Colusa NWR parking lot. If I've ruined some Montanin's "...Gee boss, I've *cough, cough* got the flu. I'm staying home this week..." excuse, I hereby offer my sincere apologies.

A license seen in Colusa NWR car lot

I first went up to see the Falcated Duck by myself on December 15, 2011. The duck was there, and I marveled at how convenient it made itself. Parked in the refuge car lot, it was only a 3 minute walk to the wooden viewing platform where a dozen birders happily peered through binoculars and spotting scopes.

The Colusa wooden viewing platform; 1/13/2012

The birders present were mesmerized by the little male duck, and everyone was impressed with it's brilliant feathering and cheeky attitude as it tried to court nearby female American Wigeon ducks. I'll bet it had a thick Slavic accent. "Here you wee-dle girl ducks, I am for buying you many it pretty things eef you come leetle closer."

Don on the right, chatting up some birders

Just in front of the Colusa viewing platform

Three Northern Shovelers just to right of platform

Leap ahead to January, and I again headed up to Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, this time with my birder buddy Don, who avidly anticipated seeing the duck. I was fretful when we left Sacramento as it was Friday. The duck had a habit of being scarse between Fridays and Sundays, due to increased visitation on those days. So, when we arrived at the refuge and walked up the ramp on the viewing platform, my heart sunk when we heard the duck was not present.

Flights of Greater White-fronted Geese
overhead, but no Falcated Duck

We hung around and Don chatted with other birders for a bit, then we drove the Colusa Refuge's auto tour loop.

Our drive was barely underway when Don spotted a Bald Eagle perched in a distant tree. With my usual alert nature, I totally missed seeing the bird. Drat! The Colusa Refuge is huge, and full of overwintering Snow, Greater White-fronted Geese and the less common and smaller Ross's and Cackling Geese.

I'm always fascinated by Ross's Geese, as they look like mini-Snow Geese with snub bills and short necks. Here below are some Snow geese.

Snow Geese with big, fat long bills

Now here for contrast are several little Ross's Geese, with their snub bills and petite stature. See the difference? No? Well, join the club! I'm kidding, if you study them, the difference begins to stuck out after a bit. The little Ross Geese look like they're Snow Geese that underwent nose (bill) reduction surgeries.

Petite, Ross's Geese with dainty bills

We didn't see anything to unusual at the Colusa Refuge, but as we rounded the last bit of the circular auto route, we spotted a bank full of little white poofy blotches.

The magical wall of Black-crowned Night Herons

The poofy blotches were Black-crowned Night Herons. I can't remember ever seeing so many Night Herons in one spot.

Close up of the scarlet-eyed Night Herons

When our short tour was over, the disappointment remained; the Falcated drake was nowhere to be seen. So, we headed further north for the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge.

These days the refuges all seem to have auto tour routes, that forbid getting out of vehicles, least the wildlife get spooked. That's a plus for a lazy birder like myself. I can sit immobile and yet appear adventurous, instead of lazy. Winters are the time of year the central valley refuges are chock full of activity as waterfowl fly in to spend their winter in R&R before flying back to the arctic in the spring for a vigorous season of nesting & rearing chicks.

Along the Sacramento Wildlife refuge tour we spotted a grounded, annoyed looking Cooper's Hawk, just off road. Mind - all Cooper's Hawks look annoyed.

Cooper's Hawk

I was rather taken by a magical view of an ordinary doe, grazing mid day in a patch of teasel. The scene looked all silvery and rather enchanting.
Little Doe among the Teasels

A closer look at the doe

We got out of the car and had a nice look around at the Sacramento Refuge's wooden platform, which unlike the Colusa platform, didn't host any lost vagrant waterfowl, just the usual motley crew. When lunch was over we drove back down to the Colusa Refuge and nearly held our breath as we approached the platform - duck or no duck? DUCK!

I was flabberghasted - the Falcated Duck flew in only a few minutes before we arrived at the viewing platform. There was back patting and high five-ing galore - the Duck of the day was in! There is no joy like that of a mob of birders, who driving in from near and far, get their lifer duck, as did myself a month ago, and Don today.

Here below I give you my crap shots of the Falcated that I took back on 12/15/11. I used my big SLR camera, but actually got better photos - shown below - shooting the duck through my Kowa scope with my iPhone.

Not nearly as brilliant on an overcast day Photo: digiPhoned

The curved feathers on his rear give the name Falcated or sword shaped

The overcast day meant no metallic glint off this boy's head

Full frontal Falcated - showing his white nose spot.

For a finale, I recommend watching this well edited, music enhanced video, of the Falcated Drake. This video is so beautiful I get all sentimental edging on weepiness, watching it. This shows off the Falcated Duck's lovely green metallic head as he swims circles, but more impressively you can see the scimitar-like 'falcated' feathers and how they are located on the drake's wing.

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