Saturday, January 7, 2012

Flamboyance Incarnate--The Mandarin Duck

What would you get if you transmogrified a Green Heron with a Cedar Waxwing and a Wood Duck? It would probably be a heinous and unnatural creation. Luckily we do not have to entertain such hideous science, because we already have the Mandarin Duck!

Technically we don't really have Mandarin Ducks in North America, though they are related to the Wood Duck. They were once widespread in China and East Russia, but have significantly dwindled in the wild and are now a majority in-captivity species. They occasionally turn up around the United States, either as escapees or released birds, and are always stunning to see.

This solitary male was at the Kiwanis Park in Tempe, AZ, and was clearly acclimated to people as he let me get very close even despite my gawking.

Here you can see the ruddy beard of the Green Heron, the yellow and white creamy facial feathers that resemble a Waxwing, and of course the prominent greens, blues, and reads on top of the head. The colors continue on the bird's breast, where they are accented by a central white spot. The bold black and white shoulder stripes give way to the zebra-striped flanks, dark blue feathers on the back, and the conspicuous, vertical paddles towards the back.

The Mandarin Duck is not on any official ABA lists since it is both a recent introduction and most species found in the wild are not second generation. That probably won't change for a long time, but I feel pretty lucky to see this bird first hand, as it is no doubt one of the most colorful creatures to be found in North America, and perhaps the world.

Long-Billed Dowitcher

By far the most interesting bird in North America, the Long-Billed Dowitcher turns heads wherever it goes. Ok, I'm exaggerating a fair bit. Like many shorebirds/waders, the Long-Billed is somewhat muted and requires careful observation and consideration to distinctly identify it from other species. Shore bird identification is an art unto itself, and while the Long-Billed isn't too problematic, it's nice that even these simpler looking birds demand such scrutiny.

This fine fellow was feeding in a drainage/run-off ditch near some cotton fields in west Phoenix. Ordinarily, it's a difficult distinction between the Long-Billed and Short-Billed, especially when they mix  and feed together. Luckily for us amateurs here in Arizona (and I don't mean to say that Arizonans are amateurs, just that it's nice to be an amateur in AZ ok? ok good.), the Short-Billed do not really stray in from the coasts, and they're never found in the state after October.

Another helpful clue is the darker stripes on the bird's tail primaries. I know it's not especially visible here, but the horizontal black and white on those little tail feathers would be a lighter brown with the Short-Billed.

I don't know what he was pulling up from the muck, but he was feeding with determination and gusto. It's always kind of fun to find these sorts of normally gregarious shorebirds all on their own. It makes the sighting seem more rare or more special, and this Dowitcher was a nice highlight on an already excellent birding excursion.