The best part about spring is not the warmer weather and longer days but the arrival of birds returning from their southern wintering grounds. And it’s not just the American Robin that is the harbinger of warmer days ahead, but also those birds just passing through. Snow geese who gather in massive flocks before heading further north into Canada and the Sub-arctic, or dozens of warbler species dotting the foliage with blue and yellow and white. And sometimes, there are special visitors. Birds who for some reason flew thousands of miles off course to end up God knows where.
One such off-track visitor was a celebrity for birders last weekend at some sewage treatment ponds in Eastern PA. Along way from her wintering ground in Southern Europe, a female Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) took a migration break at the ponds, spending most of her time napping and drifting along with a gathering of ring-neck ducks. In fact, she might have easily passed for one of the females of that species except for the lack of pale cheek patches and the much darker head with its tuft that only really shows up when she drifts into a side-profile position.
Her tuft is so slight that it looks like feathers puffed by a breeze.
Normally, tufted ducks breed in Northern Eurasia and in the British Isles, where they also reside year round. But ocassionally they end up in North America and sometimes our ring-necks end up in Europe where people might confuse the female ring-necks with female tufted ducks.
Note the white eye-ring on the female Ring-neck. On the right are a couple of male Ring-neck Ducks. Male Ring-necks and Tufted Ducks are similar in coloration but Tufted drakes are distinguished by the obvious length of tuft that hangs from the back of their head like a drooping crest.
When she wasn’t napping the visiting tufted duck spent some time diving for food such as mollusks, algae, or aquatic insects. After a bout of extensive preening it was back to napping. After almost two hours waiting for our guest to wake up from her dozing, I was rewarded with a take off, after which the duck came back to the pond to preen some more before naptime.
Both male and female Tufted Ducks have a distince white wing bar.
Throughout the morning non-birders would wander up to ask what we were looking at. A spotting scope is easier than binoculars for locking in on a bird and that made it handy for people, especially kids, to get an up-close look at a bird. One of the joys of sharing a spotting scope is that pleased “ahhh” that comes afterwards.
Birders check out our Tufted guest.
Jake and Elwood, The Blues Pups.
The Tufted Duck was upstaged when two labradoodles happened along. Quite possibly it won’t be the American Robin or migrating ducks that signal spring’s arrival next year but dogs sporting kerchiefs and ‘rays.