I should have been home, either tending to my delightful new daughter or at least getting some sleep. Instead, I found myself driving to Queens in search of a duck that shouldn’t have been there. Actually, it was three ducks, an enticing trio of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks that had been hanging around Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge since last Sunday. Believe it or not, I really did not want to go birding. In the effort to adjust to life with twice as many kids as I had just one week ago, I’ve had to place a lot of activities above recreational wildlife observation on the old priority list. But every day these errant anseriforms tarried in my territory made it tougher for me to resist the urge to go see them. Come Saturday, their siren song overpowered me so I ducked out (pardon the pun) for a quick twitch.

The fear that one’s target species will depart mere moments before arrival bedevils every bird chaser at one time or another. Indeed, the length or inconvenience of the twitcher’s travels is directly proportional to the entirely rational dismay that the winged quarry will avail itself of those selfsame wings and resume its journey. This fear is magnified tenfold if the species in question is so far out of its range that a future visit seems completely unlikely. These whistlers were a long way from Mexico or even the far southern states they frequent in the ABA area. In fact, one of the last records of this species in New York City, the second record ever of Fulvous Whistling Duck for New York State, occurred in 1965, a full forty-one years ago. That this record involved three birds together at Jamaica Bay from May 29 to June 4, more than a little coincidental, indicated that my window, while closing rapidly, might still be open.

Too bad that window slammed shut mere moments before I pulled into the parking lot. As soon as I arrived, I suffered the twitcher’s nightmare, learning that the ducks had flown off only ten minutes earlier. Only ten minutes!

Of course, I had to check the area for myself, but I didn’t have much time to hang around. Even if time weren’t a factor, the intermittent bouts of rain and constant assaults by biting insects ensured that my visit would be brief. In that time, no whistling-ducks whistled by, but I did spot most of the Jamaica Bay summer specialties, including Brown Thrasher, Glossy Ibis, Forster’s Tern, and Boat-tailed Grackle. I also encountered the winsome Willow Flycatcher pictured dimly below.

Willow Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher

The only ducks about were Mallards, American Black Ducks, and mallard/black duck hybrids, though I did hear rumors of Blue-winged Teal. We had a full compliment of common egret and heron species and lots of summer gulls. Warbler species may be on the wane, with only Yellow and Common Yellowthroat reporting for duty along the West Pond, but shorebirds are surely on the rise. American Oystercatchers, Willets, and some Calidris sandpipers, probably Least and Semipalmated, were readily apparent, but I expect plenty more were tucked out of sight. These species, supplemented by the usual common birds, ensured that my effort, though unsuccessful, was not unrewarded.

Oh, and eventually, one of the whistling-ducks did return to Jamaica Bay!

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Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.