A rare duck for the chasing

Bruce Mactavish
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Last week, while checking my emails after supper, I came to one that I should have noticed first. It was from Tony Dunne in Renews. The subject line read “Rare bird in Renews.” When I opened it I nearly fell off my chair.

It showed pictures of a duck on the beach at Renews. It was clearly a common shelduck. This is a European species of duck, common in coastal estuaries in Europe. Recently it has spread to Iceland and is now becoming established as a nesting bird there.

It was on our radar as a potential vagrant to Newfoundland. In fact, one appeared briefly at Quidi Vidi Lake on Nov. 17, 2009. It was a feature of a Winging It column back then. The surprise appearance of such an unusual bird was tempered by the unknown fact about the origin of the bird.

Did it fly to Newfoundland aided by northeast winds prior to its appearance at Quidi Vidi Lake or could it have been an escape from someone’s aviary in Newfoundland? Common shelduck is widely kept by waterfowl hobbyists in North America. If you have the proper permits, anyone can buy their own shelducks. While hobbyists who keep exotic waterfowl certainly do what they can to hold on to their valuable birds, birds can fly the coop.

The problem is we do not know if anyone in Newfoundland keeps shelducks now or has in the past. There does not seem to be an easy way to find out. The Renews bird however, had an air of wildness about it.

Its sighting occurred the day after that storm dumped 40 centimetres of snow on the eastern Avalon.

There had been 72 hours of east and northeast winds hitting eastern Newfoundland just before its appearance. And winds had been southeast through Europe with a nice airflow toward Iceland and Greenland. It may be difficult to picture this airflow in your head, but looking at the weather maps it looked pretty exciting for aiding a common shelduck migrating from a wintering site in western Europe but missing Iceland to the south and continuing toward Renews without ever having a head wind.

There was something about seeing Yvonne Dunne’s pictures of the common shelduck on a beach I knew so well in Renews that screamed out wildness. My adrenaline shot through the roof. Doing a simple thing like trying to find Renews in the phone book to look up Tony’s phone number was a task.

I forgot who my birding friends were and how to find their phone numbers on my cellphone. I was a mess, but it was a good feeling.

At dawn the next morning, several cars of birders were at Renews. Others were close to their phones at home and work in St. John’s waiting for the call and ready to drop everything and head to Renews if it was there. It was not there!

Tony came out and showed us where he and his wife Yvonne saw the bird and described its actions in painful detail. Birders hung around Renews from dawn until 3 p.m. Other birders spread out checking every cove from Trepassey to St. John’s. No sign. Where could it go?

The flock of 40 Canada geese and 20 black ducks feeding in the tidal shallows of inner Renews harbour seemed like the best place for a shelduck to hang out.

Maybe the snow and ice scared it off. It is a species that normally does not encounter ice during its lifetime.

During the next day and over the weekend, the search expanded to Conception Bay, the Isthmus and St. Mary’s Bay. All the best and many marginal habitats were searched. Its sudden disappearance and whereabouts were as mysterious as a plane vanishing into the Indian Ocean.

Maybe it will show up again. Maybe one of you has seen it. Maybe one of you readers actually owned it and it has returned to its rightful home.

If anyone can shed some light on the whereabouts of this common shelduck, I would be glad to hear about it.

New spring arrivals

The spring migration of birds remains a week or two behind schedule. During the coming week, which is the week before you see this column, a spurt of warmer weather with some southwest winds should get migration back on schedule.

Birds like the fox sparrow are a real symbol of spring. It is their rich whistled song that makes us feel like spring is back for real. They should have been here around April 1, but as I write we have just completed the first week of April and only a handful of fox sparrows have been reported.

However, this is sure to change with the warm weather this week. With all this snow on the ground, the fox sparrows will be turning to our bird feeders.

Nothing says spring more than a bright red fox sparrow at the bird feeder.

The fox sparrow has several local names around the province, most of them revolving around the word fox, because of their reddish colour. Foxy tom, foxy ruler, tom fox, foxy rooter are some of the names I like.

There were quite a few robins that overwintered in Newfoundland this year but these are restricted to residential areas with dogberries still available on the trees. By the time you see this column, new migrant robins from the south should be widespread. With all this snow on the ground they might be looking for dogberries if you have any stored away in your freezer.

Another bird that says spring is the ring-billed gull. You could easily overlook these gulls. They look a lot like the herring gull but are smaller with bright yellow legs and a bright yellow bill with a sharp black ring. These are the McDonald’s parking lot birds. They hang out in mall parking lots looking for human food thrown on the ground. Fries are their favourite. They are also easily excitable in the spring, making lots of noise and showing off their spring exuberance.

OK, let’s get this spring underway. Winter has been around too long to talk about.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Renews, Newfoundland, Europe Iceland Quidi Vidi Lake North America Eastern Avalon Greenland Trepassey Canada Conception Bay Indian Ocean

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