Monday, 10 March 2014

Our Hunt for the Daffy Duck

This is the story of a twitch and the lessons that emerged from it.  Most of you know what a twitch is but for those who think it means an involuntary muscular movement usually of the face, please know that a twitch in the birding world is a fast trip to see a rare bird. The bird is usually one that is out of its usual range, a stray, a "vagrant" as we call it, and though some rare strays adapt to their new homes and stay put for long periods of time, most vagrants occur at the location of discovery only a day or two and then disappear for places unknown. Thus speed is of the essence. That's why the decision to make a twitch must be done quickly and why the trip almost always has a rushed feeling.

OK, it's not a Baikal Teal. It's a male Cinnamon Teal near Vernon in June, just beginning to lose his spring finery as he starts his molt into female-like eclipse plumage. 

My friend Chris texted me Saturday morning, 8 March just as I was starting my exercises in the basement of my Vernon home. "I'm feeling twitchy" he texted, and since I had checked the B.C. Rare Bird Alert the night before I knew he was referring to a Baikal Teal that Russ Cannings had spotted near Nanaimo Friday. I shared the text with my wife Sonja who immediately pointed out that it was March, a relatively quiet time for birds in the Okanagan and that I didn't seem to have anything important on for the weekend, so why didn't I go for it. "You'll travel thousands of miles for a Colima Warbler. What's 1000 km for a Baikal Teal?"

Indeed, why not? I texted Chris that I would pick him up at his apartment in Kelowna in about an hour and fifteen minutes, which I did. And sharing the driving of my wife's trusty 2000 Subaru we braved the Coquihalla Connector which was nice and dry and then Highway 5 where the rain began, as usual, where the toll booths used to be. As we descended into the Fraser Valley, the rain moved through a sleety state of steadiness, through heavy to a monsoon deluge and for the next three and half hours the wipers were slapping away on high while we hydro-planed down Highway 1 to Horseshoe Bay where we were lucky enough to squeeze onto the 5 PM ferry to Nanaimo.

Once snug in our hotel room, Chris phoned Russ who arranged to meet us the next morning at a coffee shop not far from the fields where he had spotted the teal Friday and early Saturday morning. The good news was that the rain was forecast to stop overnight.

Sunday was time change day. This event threatened to rob Russ of an hour of the sleep that young men find so sweet, so he postponed our meeting. No problem: we followed the instructions on the B.C. Rare Bird Alert to the farm lane which led to the field where the Baikal had been feeding with North American Green-winged Teals. A large yellow front-end loader blocked the lane. Propped against the machine was a piece of cardboard requesting people to stay out because the farmers' cows were calving. As Chris and I regarded the sign two shotgun blasts originating from the very field we sought ripped the early morning peace asunder. Interesting cows, I thought, that can be lulled into giving birth by surprise gunshots but abort upon the sight of a scope-lugging Tilly-hatted birder. Curious country ways.

So no guide, no access, and waterfowl taking fire from unseen sportsmen. We consulted our B.C. Rare Bird notes again and walked  rocky path down to a lookout overlooking the Nanaimo estuary from the side of Highway 19. In the next hour we were joined by about 25 other birders, most of them on a Brant festival trip from Victoria who had stopped by as the news of the errant teal spread so that even 70 year olds without computers were hearing of its occurrence. Russ appeared and addressed many of us, telling us the story of the teal. Then as gently and diplomatically as possible Russ dropped the H Bomb.

H stands for hybrid, and a hybrid is the very bad news indeed for a lister. A hybrid may be the product of the mating of two attractive and fascinating fowl, but it counts for naught, because it isn't pure one thing or the other. Hybrids are freaks, unvalued violations of our unwritten code that species should stick to their own kind. Say a Spotted Towhee produced a nice healthy offspring with a Dark-eyed Junco. The resulting bird may be pretty and fill your yard with unique warbles and pretty trills and the mating might be of interest to a scientist, but what does a lister do with the bird? There's no place on his list for it.

Russ explained how he was scoping the original Green-winged Teal flock back on Friday when BAM there it was, a Baikal Teal drake in breeding plumage. Being one of the younger generation inseparable from his cell phone, he phoned his father, ornithologist, Richard Cannings, who opened a field guide and described to son Russ what the field marks were. Son, unfortunately, focused on the duck's body, more than its head, and so for a little while it seemed to be a "good bird" though the length of the bird's tail bothered Russ. Later when someone produced a photograph of the bird taken from a distance, people, including Russ began to worry about the bird's face. The facial pattern just didn't look right, not the long narrow white slightly flattened circle bordering the bird's face, surrounding a big green crescent behind the eye, and two tan commas facing each other and separated by a thin black line below the eye.

Chris and I saw one photo of the bird. The bird looked too big, its neck too long, and the facial pattern all wrong. Although we tried scanning from Duke Point at a second location that morning, we didn't find the bird. Eventually we had to start for home. The duck was seen Sunday, late in the afternoon, but by then we were driving through Hope.

It's interesting and perhaps understandable that the first birders who responded to Russ's immediate phone calls to the birding community didn't question the bird's identity. Several of these heavy hitters unthinkingly accepted the bird as a Baikal Teal, high-fived each other and moved on. It is to Russ's credit that he and a few others looked critically at the meagre photographic evidence available on Friday and Saturday and started to worn birders that the possibility that this birds was a hybrid existed.
For Chris and I however the warning came too late, but that's a risk twitchers face.

As a retired teacher, I ask what can birders learn from the Baikal Teal episode. Well, carry a field guide that shows the vagrants that have reached our shores. By chance a new guide has just been published, The Rare Birds of North American. It would fit in the car nicely.

Secondly, study field guides like The Rare Birds of North America. Be prepared. Learn which vagrants are most likely to occur in your area. Do you know, for example, that there are multiple records of Brambling, a Eurasian finch, in British Columbia in winter and that your chances are much higher of encountering a Brambling than say a Lucy's Warbler, which is a native North American but lives in the deserts of the American Southwest. Another stray you could reasonably expect is the Little Bunting, much, much more rare than the Brambling, but also easier to overlook. It would be awfully easy to misidentify a Little Bunting as some kind of native sparrow unless you had studied the bird's plumages ahead of time. Studying foreign field guides for places like northeast Asia prepares the birder for the unexpected.

Thirdly, if you do encounter a bird that may be a rarity, get as many photos of its from as many angles as you can, and take field notes to record the things that may be subject to the vagaries of light and shadow. Note behavior, colour, pattern, vocalizations, as well as external factors like time of day, foraging habitat, and weather.

Fourthly, make as few assumptions as possible. And most importantly don't assume because most of the birds in a flock are American Green-winged Teal, for example, that all the birds in the flock are Green-winged Teal. Look at every single bird possible. Here's where studying plumages ahead of time pays off. The more you know, the faster the bird that is different will stand out.

Fifthly, if you strongly suspect that you have a bona fide rarity, get on the phone fast to alert other birders so that they can see it too. However, if you aren't sure about the identity of a bird may be bring in just a buddy or two to have a critical look before you alert the nation. This is much easier said than done, of course, and I do not mean to suggest a criticism of Russ Cannings in this paragraph.

I am writing this on Monday, 10 March, 2014. For all I know further photographs will reveal that the Nanaimo Baikal Teal is the real deal, perhaps wearing some obscure, seldom shown immature first winter male plumage and everyone who saw it will be satisfied. There could be a happy ending for some of the twitchers. However either way, whether the duck is pure Baikal or a daffy looking mix of Baikal and some other duck, my points about being prepared will still stand and if practiced will make you a better birder.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your entertaining blog, Chris. Just for fun, I'm sending a copy of the note I wrote to Rick Howie after reading his posting about the "Daffy Duck".
    To Rick:
    I loved your "collection of thoughts" about little Baikal X, who has delighted and intrigued the community of birders who have either seen him or read about his unexpected presence.
    I picture his soft brown mother, who dabbled and quacked to attract a Father Duck, then cared for the unusual duckling until he was independent and could begin his improbable journey. Absolutely, count me in with the group of "benevolent afficionados" with unlimited space in our hearts for all of this world's little waifs who struggle to survive and thrive, against all odds. An "unvalued freak with abnormal parents"? Sounds like words from a Tea Party Republican! I join you in feeling that Baikal X is a dear small scrap of life to be treasured for his differences and admired for his survival skills. "Ticks" are over-rated: I'd rather spend an hour observing the Baikal X's and all other non-tick eligible birds that we are lucky enough to see and study.
    And to Chris again: As a totally house-bound birder now, I also feel LUCKY that you invest time in writing about your adventures, with skill and humour. Thank you!
    Denise Brownlie PS Your photos are a treat.