Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Elusive Duck Search Continued
March 30, 2019
By Steve Grinley

     Last week I told you about our recent Florida trip and our search for the fulvous whistling duck. It has been Margo’s nemesis life bird for many years and it has been more than fifty years since I last saw one. Our first day out birding, we had unsatisfying looks of one of these ducks flying away from us near the end of the Wildlife Drive at Lake Apopka. Just the fact that we finally saw one, after chasing multiple sightings on many visits to Florida, gave us hope to try again for better looks.

     So the next day we headed back to the Wildlife Drive, and concentrated more time on the first and last mile of the ten-mile drive. Most reports of fulvous whistling ducks were near the beginning of the drive and our previous day’s sighting was near the end. We still found most of the same birds as the previous day, but we also had a few new birds for the trip.

     We saw the same coots, gallinules, herons and egrets. We heard king rail again, this time near the entrance rather than the one we heard the previous day near the exit. We were glad to see limpkins again, as well as the white-faced ibis that is rare for Florida like it is here in Massachusetts. 

     We did see two western kingbirds at the gate entrance, new for this trip. The yellow warbler midway on the drive was new, as was a ground dove near the exit. But this day there were no fulvous whistling ducks. None.

     The next day we decided to take a different wildlife drive, this one at Emeralda Marsh. We did see purple gallinules that we hadn’t seen at Apopka. We also saw a swallow-tailed kite, which is the only one that we would see on this visit to Florida. We didn’t expect to see fulvous whistling ducks at this location, so we weren’t disappointed. 

     That lack of disappointment helped us muster up one more try for fulvous whistling duck for our next, and last, day of birding. We decided to head to the north side of Lake Apopka which had numerous recent sightings of small flocks of these elusive ducks. We have tried that area before on several previous Florida trips, each time without success.

     The levied area was similar to the Wildlife Drive, except autos are not allowed. Only walking and bikes were permitted. So hoofing the dikes with a scope was required. It was also more heavily vegetated with less open water for viewing wildlife-like ducks!

     We started out along the loop trail, only to encounter the noise of heavy equipment working after the first bend in the loop trail. We could then see a large, bulldozer-like vehicle
driving through the heavily vegetated marsh, cutting large swathes as it went. Realizing that any peace-loving marsh bird was not going to tolerate the disruption the workers were creating, we took a detour off the trail to a different levy. 

     We encountered a few gallinules, a kingfisher, a sora and a white-eyed vireo down this trail, but little else. We decided to head back to the parking area and wander over to the nearby boat ramp area. As we did, a pair of barred owls started dueting their eight-hoot calls back and forth in midday. In the boat ramp area, saw a pair of bluebirds and a kestrel. We also had nice views of Savannah sparrows, white-crowned sparrows and a less common clay-colored sparrow. 

     By mid-afternoon the noise from the heavy equipment had subsided, so we decided to try the Loop Trail once again. As we walked down the trail, the workers were driving out, apparently finished for the day. We continued along the dike and found open areas of water where we could see blue-winged teal, common gallinules, tri-colored, little blue and green herons, great and snowy egrets, glossy and white ibis. We then saw a large wood stork fly in. The marsh was returning to normal after the workers exited!

     We saw a flock of eleven ducks flying around. Whistling ducks? But they had large white patches on the wings. They were the more common black-bellied whistling ducks. They circled around, calling as they flew and settled back down out of sight. 

     Then it happened. Another flock of large ducks flew up. These had dark wings and white at the base of the tail. Fulvous-tree ducks!! These birds circled around and finally settled down, also out of sight. 

     We waited. It was getting later in the afternoon as more ducks took to the air. Some had white in the wings, the black-bellied whistling ducks, and some of those landed in the low vegetation fifty yards from us. But the thick vegetation permitted only peek-a- boo looks.

     Then, both whistling ducks were circling the marsh. Some fulvous whistling ducks flying right by us so we had great looks at the russet body color and dark wings. There were large flocks of both species up and down and circling almost constantly. This lasted twenty minutes or more until they all seemed to settle down, out of sight once more. 

     It was like a grand finale to our quest. We finally had great looks at these elusive ducks. We estimated eighty fulvous whistling ducks and fifty black-bellied whistling ducks. Success at last!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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