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THROUGH THE WOODS: The Mystery Duck

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White-winged scoter. Photo contributed

IN JULY I GOT A PHONE CALL from a perplexed Hillsdale farmer. This is a multigenerational family farm with people who understand local wildlife, so I was surprised when I heard they had a duck on a farm pond they couldn’t identify. I asked for a description and ran through all the usual suspects, and it wasn’t.

I love these calls and get the location and promise to respect their privacy. They did not want people to arrive and tramp all over their property, which I understand. There is a liability, possible livestock that would be disturbed, and litter, to mention a few items. Birders are respectful, but wildlife photographers are notoriously not, and they are always watching the internet for unusual finds. It is a business and money for them, and the sought-after subject can be harassed and harmed too.

I drove over to the about-half-acre farm pond and parked to observe for a few hours. I saw about 10 Canada geese and then spotted the dark-colored duck near them. I immediately knew what it was, an adult male White-winged scoter. I was flabbergasted because this duck should have been up in the arctic for the nesting season. I took numerous photos to document it, knowing I would be questioned by other excellent birders who would find this report hard to believe.

The scoter was very active and was diving, swimming fast, flapping its wings, shaking off water, preening and rolling. It provided wonderful views of all its features and colors. The body color is black with mottled brownish sides. The black wings have large white patches which give their name.

The head is quite distinctive. It is black with a teardrop-shaped white area near the light-colored bluish eye. The sturdy bill is reddish orange with a knob at the base, and from the side, you can see through the raised nostrils.

This duck’s preferred diet is mollusks like mussels and clams. I speculated it was diving for crayfish and fish in the pond. It may eat insects, worms, and any animal matter on the pond’s bottom. A plus is it loves invasive zebra mussels. Why this duck was there presented problems. It appeared well-fed and without injuries. I consulted some experts and one explanation for its presence was it became trapped during the spring migration. This duck needs a relatively long run on the water surface to lift off and the pond might be too small. The capture of this species is difficult so it may remain there until the pond freezes, and it will die. My hope is the fall migration will call it to make the effort to leave. If not, it will feed others, which is nature’s way. It has been a very intriguing find, I have learned many things, and I wish it a happy flight south.

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