No that’s not some kind of absurd typo up there. Sunday was all about the search for the Tufted Duck at Ausable Point State Park on Lake Champlain (TUDU is the bird banding code for Tufted Duck). The Tufted Duck is a Eurasian species which occasionally pops up in North America. It is very like our Ring-necked Duck but with white flanks, no white ring on the bill, and a tuft coming off of the back of the male’s head.
On the trip from Albany were Will, whom you’ve met and for whom the Tufted Duck would be a lifer, Jory, an Albany-area birder who, with Rich Guthrie and a third co-conspirator, Bill Lee, is on a Big Year in New York State this year, for whom Tufted Duck would also be a lifer, and, perhaps as importantly, another step towards the goal of 300 species for the year (Rich and the other conspirator got the TUDU Saturday), and I, well, yeah, it would be a lifer.
The day started lousy for me when I woke up to the rooster that has taken up residence in my parking lot crowing at 4:30 AM only to find cat poop on the floor in the hallway. Then my lace broke when I was putting on my boots. I was in a better mood by the time we were driving through the Adirondacks in their early morning fog-shrouded and snow-coated beauty. We got to Ausable Point in no time flat (ok, two hours ten minutes) and were on the hunt at 9:30 AM.
Two birders were already stationed on Route 9 scanning the flocks, one them Bill Krueger, the birder who originally discovered our mission’s objective. They hadn’t seen it yet and more ducks were out of range of their mighty scopes so after cell phone numbers were exchanged our gang of three headed down the access road for Ausable Point State Park, which runs due east off the north-south Route 9. The ducks were all in the lake, north of our position and east of theirs.
We took turns scoping on Jory’s great and Will’s not-so-great scopes (my not-so-great scope is still busted…on my to do list) and looking through our binoculars at the amazing array of waterfowl. By the end of the day we would see 21 species of duck and goose in this section of the lake and most in pretty big numbers. Because many were distant, and Tufted Ducks can look like either scaup species, Ring-necked Ducks, or either goldeneye species at that range, it was slow going. We decided it was like looking for a specific piece of hay in a haystack of nearly-identical pieces of hay that kept moving around and sometimes dove under water. And sometimes took flight when any one of three Bald Eagles in the area flew over. So it wasn’t like hay at all but you get the idea.
We got the call from the pair on Route 9. They had the bird. We scrambled like fighter pilots into an F-16 but a lot less organized. We got there. The flocks had scattered and one flock had disappeared to the north (darn eagles). We were not to find the Tufted Duck but we didn’t know it yet.
We scanned. We scanned some more. We switched positions and scanned some more. Then we scanned some more. Etc. Etc. Etc. At one stop about a mile north of the point we stopped for more distant ducks. I had no scope so I walked south along the road where a small flock was in closer. Binoculars up and BAM! Drake Barrow’s Goldeneye. I don’t know if what I said next was really intelligible but Will and Jory came over and got on it. A lifer for Will and a second look at one this year for Jory (he’s on a Big Year people). It was great that Will saw it because he missed the one on the Tomhannock Reservoir last fall that was my lifer (and my second view, and my third view).
So what did we do? We switched positions and scanned some more. At some point the sun came out and made the scanning much easier when the sun was at our backs. We saw Canada Geese, Wood Ducks, Gadwall, American Wigeons, American Black Ducks, Mallards, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded and Common Mergansers. And no Tufted Duck.
Then, while Jory rested his eyes in the car, Will, looking through Jory’s scope, calmly said, “I have a Eurasian Wigeon.”
“No you don’t,” I replied.
He took his eye from the scope, sighed, rolled his eyes, looked back in the scope and calmly said, “Yes I do.”
Suspecting some kind of trap I warily approached the scope. A Barrow’s Goldeneye and a Eurasian Wigeon in the same spot as a Tufted Duck? No way. I ran my finger around the scope…good, he wasn’t pulling the old ring-around-the-eye trick. I put my eye to the scope and there was the reddish cheek and tan head-stripe of my first-ever Eurasian Wigeon, a great look with the sun directly behind me!
We both realized we had to wake Jory. We opened the doors with excitement on our faces and in our voices. Jory’s response? He yawned (well, we did just wake him up, it must be an involuntary reflex, I thought). “I already got one this year,” he said.
Again, the man is on a Big Year, people. He did, however, get out of the car and take a good long look at the wigeon. We all agreed that there was no chance it was a hybrid and managed to get several other birders there on the bird and even got others on cell phones in to take a look. Jory then picked out a Pied-billed Grebe which was quite a trick as they really aren’t supposed to be around yet. Turns out he missed the earliest date for a Pied-billed Grebe in Clinton County by a couple of days.
What was really nice about Ausable Point was that everyone seemed friendly and no less than six people stopped to tell us that there were Bald Eagles at which we should be looking. We gave up explaining our search for a TUDU and actually began to dread cars slowing down with helpful people behind the wheel (just having fun folks, but when you pull up to people with optics out the yin-yang, staring bleary-eyed into a spotting scope, trust me, they have seen the eagles).
Other than leaving my camera behind and thinking it was gone forever that was pretty much it for the day. We did drive south along the lake hoping to find something else worth seeing but most of the rest of the lake was still frozen over. No wonder all the waterfowl were at Ausable Point.
I managed to take the latter half of Monday afternoon off to drive back up to Ausable Point to retrieve my camera. The ducks were spread out even more as the ice has continued to break up and melt. The Eurasian Wigeon was still there but no one had seen the Tufted Duck all day.