Harlequin Duck gives January birding an exciting finale

4:49 pm | February 11, 2013

I wrote last week summarizing the results of a productive January of birding in Northeast Tennessee.

However, due to my press deadlines and the spontaneous nature of birding, last week’s column didn’t mention all the birds that my friends and I found during the first month of the year. We definitely saved the best birds for last.
A chance discovery on the river behind Kingsport’s Riverside Seafood Co. on the afternoon of Jan. 31 touched off an intense scramble among about 20 birders in Northeast Tennessee.

Brookie and Jean Potter stopped by the restaurant to look for a wintering Spotted Sandpiper, hoping to add this rare winter visitor to their list of Northeast Tennessee birds for 2013. Spotted Sandpipers are common migrants in spring and fall. They’re not common in the region during the winter months, although a few of these birds have in recent years taken up residence on this stretch of river along Netherland Drive in Kingsport.
The Spotted Sandpiper is not the subject of this week’s column, however. In fact, while the Potters failed to find any Spotted Sandpiper, they did locate only the second Harlequin Duck ever reported in Northeast Tennessee.

The first Harlequin Duck ever found in the region was discovered in the waning hours of the first day of the year in 2000. I remember traveling with the late Howard Langridge to get a look at that bird after we learned of its discovery on the weir dam at Osceola Island Recreation Area in Bristol. We were worried we would not get there with enough daylight remaining to see the bird.

As it happened, we did arrive in time, and found a crowd of birders gathered to observe this rarity. The daylight did fade fast. I remember hearing a Great Horned Owl call while we were all still taking last looks through spotting scopes at the duck.

Now, 13 years later, another Harlequin Duck made its first observed appearance on the last day of January while the first one had been found on the first day of the same month. There’s something to be said for that kind of symmetry.

The Harlequin Duck is a rare bird in Tennessee. And, ironically, I now have two Harlequin Ducks on my state list, but no sightings of this duck anywhere else. Some of the people gathered Jan. 31 to look at this duck mentioned seeing others of its kind in such far-flung places as Maine and South Carolina. For a few, it was also a first sighting of a life bird.

This would not be quite as surprising a duck if seen in its normal range of cold, fast-moving streams in northwestern and northeastern North America, Greenland, Iceland and western Russia.

So, I was very glad to get this second Harlequin Duck, which I honestly never expected to see again in Tennessee.

As an added bonus, I also picked up Bird No. 63 and No. 64 — Double-crested Cormorant and Black Vulture, respectively.

Even more importantly, the Potters and our mutual friend, Tom McNeil, also added the Harlequin Duck to their year lists.

It was already too late, however, to make mention of the changing January tallies in last week’s column.

Tom finished with 102 birds in the month of January.
Brookie tallied 103 for the month, while Jean acquired a total of 97.

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Dubbed “Harley” the Harlequin Duck by Elizabethton birder Rob Biller, she was still present Tuesday, Feb. 5, when she was seen that morning by Kingsport birder Rack Cross as she flew upstream to make a splashdown behind the Riverfront Seafood Co.

Rack has been keeping track of her whereabouts since her discovery. The duck has become known for executing a pattern of behavior that includes resting by the bank directly behind the restaurant and then flying upstream to drift and dive in the rapids before returning near shore for a break.

Kingsport Assistant City Manager Jeff Fleming has even mentioned the duck on his blog — www.jefffleming.blogspot.com — and theorized that recent snowstorms blew the duck into the area, Actually, personnel at the restaurant have informed birders that the duck had been present for a couple of weeks before her “discovery” led to a major birding frenzy among birders in Tennessee and neighboring states.

If you want to try your luck looking for this duck, the Riverfront Seafood Co. is located at 1777 Netherland Inn Road, Kingsport.

Rack also pointed out that the duck is technically one of the more impressive birds located along the Kingsport Birding Trail since its founding in September of 2010. The city’s linear park, known as the Kingsport Greenbelt, hosts five stops along the KBT. The trail, depending on the season, is a good place to look for Bald Eagles, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Red-shouldered Hawks and a variety of wintering waterfowl. For more information, visit www.kingsportbirdingtrail.com.

••••••

Harley picked some familiar terrain on this section of the Holston River. Harlequin Ducks are known for reveling in winter storms at sea and, during the nesting season, they reside on fast-moving, frigid streams in northwestern and northeastern North America, Greenland, Iceland and western Russia. The choppy waters in front of the restaurant must seem almost like home.

Adult male Harlequins are slate blue with chestnut sides and white markings, including a white crescent at the base of the bill. Adult females are less colorful, with brownish-grey plumage and white patches on the head around the eyes. Both adults also have white ear-patches.

They have acquired a surprising number of common names, including Lords and Ladies, Painted Duck, Totem Pole Duck, Rock Duck, Glacier Duck, Mountain Duck, White-eyed Diver, Squeaker and Blue Streak.

This duck is the only member of the genus, Histrionicus, and is known by the scientific name, Histrionicus histrionicus.

Harlequins feed on aquatic organisms, including insect larvae, crustaceans and mollusks.

They are well adapted to life in cold waters, and their feathers are smooth and densely packed, which helps trap air that insulates the body from chilly temperatures.

••••••

After 15 years of success in North America, the Great Backyard Bird Count will open up to the entire world for the first time in 2013. Anyone, from anywhere on earth, can participate by visiting www.birdcount.org and reporting the kinds and numbers of birds they see during the 16th annual count, Feb. 15­­-18, 2013.

The four-day count typically receives sightings from tens of thousands of people reporting more than 600 bird species in the United States and Canada alone.

“This year’s count will give us a whole new perspective as sightings pour in from around the globe in real time,” said Marshall Iliff at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Millions of people encounter birds every day all over the world. Imagine what scientists will learn if each one of us shares observations from our own area!”

“The GBBC is an ideal opportunity for young and old to connect with nature by discovering birds and to participate in a huge science project,” said Gary Langham, Audubon’s Chief Scientist.  “This year, we hope people on all seven continents, oceans and islands, will head out into their neighborhoods, rural areas, parks and wilderness to further our understanding of birds across the hemispheres.”

Participating is easy. Simply watch birds for at least 15 minutes at the location of your choice on one or more of the count days. Estimate the number of birds you see for each species you can identify. You’ll select your location on a map, answer a few questions, enter your tallies, and then submit your data to share your sightings with others around the world.

The global capacity for the count will be powered by eBird, an online checklist program for all of the world’s 10,240 bird species. Participants will be able to view what others are seeing on interactive maps, keep their own records, and have their tallies recorded for perpetuity.

“The popularity of the Great Backyard Bird Count grows each year,” said Dick Cannings, Senior Projects Officer at Bird Studies Canada, “and with the new features, participation will be even more exciting.”

For more information or to report birds found during the GBBC, visit http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc.

Perhaps Harley the Harlequin Duck will linger long enough to make the count.

••••••

Photo by Jean PotterThis female Harlequin Duck in Kingsport has lured birders from as far as Chattanooga and Memphis to travel to Northeast Tennessee to add this bird to their state and life lists.

Photo by Jean Potter
This female Harlequin Duck in Kingsport has lured birders from as far as Chattanooga and Memphis to travel to Northeast Tennessee to add this bird to their state and life lists.

Call me at 297-9077 or 542-4151 to share an observation, make a comment or ask a question. Readers can also send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or bstevens@starhq.com. I’m also on Facebook.

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