Over much of North America, the Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis is more than just common. Rather, it could be considered the aythyian background noise against which to discern the other, more appreciated species. But one man’s trash bird is another man’s treasure, and the Lesser Scaup is a species that inspires awe and wonder in a birder’s mind on the eastern side of the Atlantic, where it turns up as a vagrant on rare occasions. It was thus with much delight that I found myself in the position of going to see a fine male Lesser Scaup in the lunch break of a business trip to the far south-west of Germany. And see it I did, as the pictures below will plainly show. But the seeing itself is not so much the theme of this post, it is the drake’s particularities.
You see, this particular bird has been around each winter at a waterfowl feeding area on the river Rhine near the city of Basel for the last … have a seat … twelve years. Yes, that’s the number inbetween eleven and thirteen – twelve. Which is a long time even for a duck.
Now, the issues concerning waterfowl vagrancy are well-known, and birders can be a mean bunch. Whenever a rare species of duck shows up at places it shouldn’t be, it is first and foremost considered and escape, and the burden of proof weighs heavily on the shoulders of those who would like to count it for their lists. Unless a bird has been ringed/banded and its origins are thus proven, we are left to speculate. And this is where the fatalistic meanness of birders makes an appearance. If – and if means “if at all” – we are to even consider its origins “doubtful”, the bird has to fulfill a few requirements:
- It should first make an appearance in autumn at a time that coincides with its fall migration period (please note how I wittily used “autumn” for the time of its appearance in Europe, yet chose “fall” for the migration period in North America).
- It should be very shy and behave really, really wild.
- It should disappear around the time when it should start its spring migration (please note how witty it is that there is only one word for spring in the Old & New World)
- It should never ever come back because decent vagrants either make it back to their original range and never get lost again, or die trying. That’s the mean part I was talking about.
Now let’s see how our little drake does:
Requirement one: appear in autumn – check!
Requirement two: behave wild – bad!
Requirement three: buzz off in spring – check!
Requirement four: never return – ha, no way – bad!
It doesn’t look good at first glance, but the following needs to be known regarding requirement two: many ducks that are usually found along the coast of the North Sea in winter make their way South along the Rhine far inland, and these birds often, and very frequently, can be seen at waterfowl feeding areas. Goosander, Tufted Ducks, Pochards, Eider, Pintails, Great Crested Grebes, … you name them, they will be there. The fact that it is approachable and is being fed by people therefore isn’t necessarily a strong argument for an escape.
And requirement four, the one to never return? Well, it is gone during the summer and might migrate to where only itself will know. It has been seen near Luzern (85 km away) in Switzerland, so it is not a very local bird at all. It therefore might very well be a genuine vagrant that got lost along the Rhine and now just ekes out a meagre living in the foreign lands it now calls home in its twelfth year. After such a long time, there is no way of ever finding out where it came from – and I feel it should be regarded as a naturalized alien and accepted. Which is what the German, Swiss, and French birding community has done for the last twelve years, however mysterious its origins may be.
So did I put it on my German list? Well, after what I’ve just said, the answer is a firm … NO!
You see – and may I refer you to the post’s title – it is a mysterious international duck. Because of all the places it could have called its winter home, it chose the Rhine separating Huningue and Weil am Rhein, the border triangle of Switzerland, France and Germany. Its preferred place – the feeding area – is in Huningue in France, 109 m away from the German border that runs along the centre of the river, and a bit further away from the Swiss part of the Rhine to the South of Germany. Once in a while, it will fly around a bit and then cross Swiss and German air space. Determined listers from these countries would therefore do well to stand on their side of the Rhine for hours and hours, sometimes maybe even a whole day or two, and wait for this fly-over to happen. I know birders who have done this, and it is an exercise in boredom. Other birders have been proven to have lied, claiming such a fly-over to shorten their time at the Rhine when others saw them and saw the duck never take flight from France. And then there are others, like myself, who consider this a good reason to not seriously pursue a country list and just go for a life list and a year list in 2012 that will be longer than Corey’s.
And the fine male Lesser Scaup has served the latter of these purposes just nicely. Now, finally, enjoy the pictures.
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