The North Carolina birding community (and South Carolina too) has been hopping with the report of a White-cheeked Pintail, one of the more sharp-looking representatives of a particularly sharp-looking family of birds, at a wildlife refuge on the Outer Banks.  But the bird’s striking visage is hardly the only reason the local birdery’s interest was piqued.  White-cheeked Pintail is not a native North American bird, and the closest it comes to our shores is the rather significant population in the Bahamas.  As such it occasionally ends up in Florida, like so many Bahamanian birds following fair winds, and a handful of records exist there.  But to have one so far up the coast in North Carolina, while not entirely out of the question, is something else entirely.  And yet cars were not revved, sick days not faked, and though the bird has been rather easily seen on a daily basis at a highly traveled refuge, the big state listers have not really been rushing out to find it.  The reason, despite the seemingly winning combination of beauty and rarity that is the raison d’etre of the twitcher, is fairly obvious to anyone with experience dealing with Rare Bird Committees and baffling to those who don’t.

It’s a duck, see, and who knows where those guys come from?

photo by Mike Bergin

photo by Mike Bergin

White-cheeked Pintail is not just a fabulous West Indian vagrant, it’s also a kept bird, a common species raised in waterfowl farms all over the country along with any number of colorful and exotic duck species from all over the world.  The fact that an extensive network of duck breeders exists instantly calls into question the provenance of any potential vagrant duck species, particularly those from the Palearctic and the Neotropics, anywhere on the continent.  As you might imagine, for birders interested in playing by the “rules” and especially the state bird records committees tasked with determining the origin of these birds, this is a nightmare, especially since White-cheeked Pintail is not an entirely unexpected vagrant in this part of the country.  The Bahamas are, after all, only 600 miles away.  Practically an afternoon jaunt for a duck!

The discovery of this bird set off a really interesting and transparent discussion (an example of how listservs can stay relevant in an increasingly complex social network) on the merits of determining origins of potential vagrant waterfowl, one that any birder might find useful.

Turns out there are several clues that birders should look for on birds like these, the most obvious being any signs of clear domestic origin like non-federal bands or clipped hallux (the rear facing nub of a toe) or obvious lack of wariness.  Absent all of those clues, you definitely have reason to start thinking the bird is wild, but that’s hardly enough to be certain.  Usually, all other things being absent, that’s only enough for a wary bird committee to punt the bird to the dreaded “unknown origin” category, the death knell of so many potentially good waterfowl vagrants.

But the North Carolina bird, and another Pintail from the week prior from Chincoteauge, Virginia, offered additional pieces to the puzzle.  The birds arrived in the wake of a storm system, Tropical Storm Nicole.  A unique series of weather events that was like, as one local birder put it, “running a hose from the Caribbean”.  We birders in the Southeast are well aware of the potential of storm systems like Nicole to blow some cool birds along with the wind, but conventional storm blown birds like tubenoses and terns get all the press while ducks are rarely considered even though there’s no reason to think that they wouldn’t be subject to the same weather as any other bird.

But this leads to even more questions now.  Why do birds that flock after breeding in their core range show up solo as vagrants, especially if they’re storm blown birds?  Wouldn’t an entire flock be more likely to get caught up together?  Why do we question the provenance of a White-cheeked Pintail and not, say, a solo Cinnamon Teal, another commonly bred species, but one native to North American and regularly accepted by Rare Bird Committees in eastern states?  Does it matter that the pintail would only have to travel 600 miles and the teal several thousand?  Have I lost everyone reading this post?

Some state rarity committees may have general policy guidelines when it comes to dealing with vagrant waterfowl, that take everything into account; range, distance from the state in question, season of occurrence, location where seen, with other waterfowl of its species or with other species or a loner, wariness, feather/plumage condition, associated weather factors, commonness in captivity, etc etc etc.  These criteria may seen somewhat arbitrary and inconsistently applied, and you’d be right.  Bird record committees, for all the good they do as gatekeepers of bird records, can be frustratingly slow and often opaque in their actions.  But the bottom line is that it’s exceptionally hard even for bird committees, who consist of experienced birders, to figure out where waterfowl like White-cheeked Pintail coming from.  But here’s the dirty little secret…

You don’t need them.

You don’t need to abide by the bird committees’ decision.  Sure they want you to have that impression, but even if you’re one of the birders who like submitting their lists to the ABA every year, you don’t need their OK.  In fact, you could even make the argument that too much deference to bird committees can prevent us from a full understanding of waterfowl vagrancy in the present, in that it can encourage birders to ignore these weird birds.  But they’re here.  They’re interacting with wild species.  And they should be paid attention to.  In my capacity as eBird reviewer for North Carolina I accept these birds, this particular bird included, for precisely those reasons because for eBird to function as a database to analyze bird distribution, every individual, regardless of provenance, should be included (of course eBird also offers an option to make notes about provenance too).  But you only have to believe, based on your observations, than the bird is free-flying and wild to count it as such.  That’s not to discount the important work that those volunteers on the committees do and the knowledge they amass, but in the end, it’s your list.  Or not even that, if you don’t bird that way.

As for the White-cheeked Pintail on the Outer Banks, it persists.  Recent flight photos, however, show some interesting primary molt and could even suggest that the bird was was pinioned in the past.  Such an observation would probably be the nail in the coffin for the possibility that this individual is a wild type bird, but that doesn’t mean the next one won’t be.  On the other hand, Fish and Wildlife Staff say the bird has been there since July! So in the end, who knows?

The important thing to take from all this is that you should keep paying attention to those crazy ducks, you never know what you might find.  And they’re still pretty sharp besides.

Written by Nate
Nate Swick is a birder. He grew up in the midwest but currently makes his home in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife and two young children, who are not yet aware that they are birders too. He has a soft spot for Piping Plovers and loves pelagics even when his stomach doesn’t, which makes him the quintessential Carolina birder. Nate is the editor of the ABA blog, host of the American Birding Podcast, and author of two books, Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.