Saturday, June 28, 2014

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have been showing up all over the place recently, with brief appearances in each of North Carolina's three physiographic regions: mountains, piedmont and coastal plain, as well as northern outliers turning up Massachusetts and New Brunswick all in the last several weeks.  So on the one hand, a record of this species at Mattamuskeet is probably long over due.  Yet prior to 2013 there were only two formally confirmed North Carolina occurrences, so the pair I stumbled upon on Monday is certainly worth some excited documentation. 

It all began innocently enough. With the recent discovery of White-faced Ibises hanging around the refuge (see this post and this post) I have been giving any Glossy Ibises I see a second look if I get the chance. The long days of late June meant that after 13 hours of field work there was still plenty of daylight and I somehow had the energy to scrutinize some distant ibises.  

I picked out a couple young of the year glossies showing some odd white markings on the neck and crown, which I've never before seen in photos of field guides.

freshly fledged Glossy Ibis, Mattamuskeet NWR
Glossy Ibis, Mattamuskeet NWR
I stopped as I was driving out and hopped out of my car planning to scope some distant ibis when I noticed this cute pair of ducks right in front of me. 

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
The provenance question always comes up with vagrant duck species.  This pair shuffled away from me, but didn't take immediate flight, which gave me some decent photographic opportunities.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Mattamuskeet NWR
They dabbled among the marsh plants (looks like the invasive Alligator Weed) a bit.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks Mattamuskeet, NWR
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Mattamuskeet NWR
They seemed to be quite at home among the other impoundment denizens. 
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis
They eventually began to preen.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mattamuskeet NWR
I'm not sure what to make of this 'dance.'

After about 30 minutes the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks abruptly picked up.  I followed them with binoculars and then switched to my scope until they became just wiggling dots against the sky that disappeared below the horizon to the south-southeast.  I thought that perhaps they might have resettled in one of the refuge impoundments in that direction, but a half-hearted search the following day failed to turn any up.   It seems like these ducks do not frequently linger after being found. 

In between shots of the Whistling-Ducks, I noticed a male Northern Pintail that had foregone the standard northern migration. He was keeping company with what appears to be a female Mottled Duck, another southern duck species with a complicated local history of anthropogenic introduction and showing a trend of northward expansion.

female Mottled Duck (right) with Northern Pintail, Mattamuskeet NWR
All at once I've got two species of duck that could possibly be considered first records for Hyde County if the authorities can stomach provenance concerns.

What will turn up at Mattamuskeet next?  Perhaps a Purple Gallinule?  There have been plenty of those turning up in NC lately, but it would take a good bit of luck to discover one among the sprawl of habitat available on the refuge. 

Until next time...


  1. weird waterfowl eh...that's pretty nifty, and ducks are so mercifully conspicuous too. On the other hand this all seems pretty fishy...not like there's a big provenancial question or anything, but like...the ducks are up to something man. Be careful out there.

    Wasn't Mattamuskeet where all those people that no one ever heard from again were last seen??

    1. Ha! I haven't heard much about a duck conspiracy to murder birders.
      I tried to comment on your blog, but I'm not sure it stuck. Sounds like you're seeing some cool NC birds yourself. Have you made it to the mountains yet?

    2. Cheers Scott, I had a few days there with some casual birding (months there still wouldn't be enough). Hopefully there'll be some fun stuff, if fewer warblers, in the Piedmont again.

  2. Hmmm.... I just heard from a friend that 6 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were found at Morningside Park in Hudson Valley part of New York this week.This is a first ever record for this species in Sullivan County (NY). So is there some sort of "disruptive irruption" going on with this species? Is this on the order of the widespread sightings of Razorbill Auks last year (all the way down to Florida and beyond), the Red-Necked Grebes hanging out in the Piedmont, and the widespread invasion of the Snowy Owls? It seems much harder to pinpoint the reason for this "wave of ducks".
    Erla of Wake Audubon Meetup

    1. The population is increasing and pushing northward apparently, but I haven't heard any guesses at what might be causing them to stray so far. I'm not sure there's much precedent for irruption by this short-distance migrant. It will be interesting to see how many more turn up at high latitudes.