Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

In Search of an Elusive Duck
March 23, 2019
By Steve Grinley

     This past week, Margo and I visited central Florida to visit with family, but we were also able to do some birding, as we usually try to do on these trips. Unfortunately central Florida doesn’t afford the birding opportunities of southern Florida, the Everglades or the Keys, but we make the best of the time we have in nearby areas that can be productive. Each of these trips do give us another opportunity to try for a nemesis bird, one that has eluded us in each of the past five or more visits, and one that would be a life bird for Margo.

     The fulvous whistling duck, previously named the fulvous tree duck, is a large, russet colored southern duck with long legs and a long neck. Its larger “tree duck” cousin, the black-bellied whistling duck, is more common throughout its range and has even appeared in Massachusetts over the years. So we were both familiar with that species, but the only fulvous whistling duck that I have seen was in south Texas back in 1966. So, more than 50 years ago!

     This elusive species has been reported regularly at Lake Apopka, within an hour or so of where we usually stay, so we always concentrated our search there. We have travelled to other localities further way, such as the Stillwater Water Treatment Areas a couple of hours southeast, but all searches have been in vain. We always enjoy Lake Apopka, especially its 10 mile long Wildlife Drive which I have talked about before. It is home to so many Florida specialty birds that we don’t get to see very often, and many of them are binocular views away (or less) from the car.

     The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is only open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. On those days you can drive along the levies of a water reclamation area that is teeming with birds, alligators, turtles and other wildlife on both sides of the car. The speed limit is 10 miles per hour, so you can crawl along, stop as you need to view or take photos, or pull over at designated turnouts and get out with a scope or camera while others can pass.

     Our check of eBird revealed fulvous whistling ducks reported from both the Wildlife Drive as well as from the North Lake Apopka Area. The latter is also a levied water reclamation area, but it is closed to vehicles, though walking or biking is allowed there every day. So on Friday, after spending the morning with family, we decided to spend the afternoon on the Wildlife Drive.

     We saw fulvous whistling duck reports for that morning, including one report from a familiar name, Scott Surner, a fellow Massachusetts birder from the western part of the state. En route, we called Scott and he confirmed that he saw four of those ducks in flight near the beginning of the drive, which is where other reporters had them. He said that he also saw more black-bellied whistling ducks along the Drive as well. So we became very optimistic, despite our past failures to find our nemesis bird.

     We spent a lot of time crawling along the start of the Wildlife Drive. There were American coots, dark chicken-like birds with white bills, everywhere we looked in the thickly vegetated marshy areas around us – “enough to stuff all the gators in Florida” as Scott described it. The second most common bird were the Common Gallinules, similar to the coots, but dark gray with white flank stripes and white tail spots and sporting a bright red bill. Among the noisy coots and gallinules were small, brown diving pied-billed grebes and many blue-winged teal, easily the most common duck that we saw.

     All along the edges, and in flight, were scores of herons and egrets including great blue, little blue, tricolored, green and black-crowned night herons, as well as great and snowy egrets. Cattle egrets fed on the grasses along the levies, often coming within feet of the car. Plenty of glossy ibis were around as were a few white ibis. Also present were many anhinga and cormorants perched on low branches with wings hanging out to dry. We also saw a couple of less-common limpkins, always a nice find anywhere in Florida.

     Red-tailed hawks and harriers were hunting the area, as were the ever-present turkey and black vultures. A bald eagle or two flew high overhead, seemingly not disturbing the waterfowl below as they seem to do on Plum Island so often. Passerines included the endless cranking of boat-tailed grackles and red-winged blackbirds, kingfishers, tree and barn swallows, a few marsh wrens and Carolina wrens, numerous palm warblers and yellow-rumped warblers and a single, perhaps over-wintering, yellow warbler. Red-bellied and downy woodpeckers were seen around the few islands of trees that we encountered along the way.

     But no whistling ducks – of either kind! It wasn’t until later in day, along the last couple of legs of the drive, that we saw any ducks other than the teal. A pair of mottled ducks and a number of ring-necked ducks were in the last sections of the open wet areas. The female ring-necks did give us pause with their similar russet color of the fulvous whistling duck.

     At one point near the end of the drive, we were out of the car with the scope out and scanning the coots, gallinules and few ducks with our binoculars when a bird flying from behind us over my shoulder caught my eye. It was a large duck with a long neck, russet in color and dark wings. Fulvous whistling duck!

     “Get on this bird!” I yelled to Margo. She did see the bird as it was just past us, flying away. She grabbed the scope and got it in her sights as it continued to fly away from us. It banked a couple of times in the late afternoon light and I could hear her say “Oh. Ooooh!” She had seen the russet color, dark wings and long neck. She could tell that it was, indeed, a fulvous whistling duck!

     But it was an unsatisfying look for both us. A while later, it happened again. The same, or another duck flew from behind us, overhead and away from us. With the light dimishing, the view was worse, not better than the first. But it was all that we were going to get that day.

     Just the fact that we finally saw one or two of these birds after so many unsuccessful tries encouraged us to want to try again for better looks. We did try again during the days following, and next week I will tell you what we found.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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