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A Different Kind of Duck Hunting

This time of fall is exciting for us duck hunters.  Each cold front brings down another flight of migrating waterfowl.  The wonderment of what could be out there is overwhelming.  Arriving mid-morning on the scene to find a monstrous raft of ducks on the water is exhilarating.  Of course, blood begins pulsing  as you set-up your Kowa or Leica spotting scope on its window-mount and you begin to methodically sift through the flock, identifying individual birds to species and anticipating whether a rarity will be found among the masses.

What’s that you say?   This sounds nothing like duck hunting?  Well, it is duck hunting of a little different flavor, allow me to explain.

immature Surf Scoter at Lewis and Clark Lake, photo by Mark Brogie
Scoters are usually seen far from shore in Nebraska, which makes them difficult to photogragh. This immature Surf Scoter, found by Mark Brogie Bill Huser, Jerry Probst, and Bob Livermore, at Lewis and Clark Lake on 19 October 2013 was an exception. Photo (Nice!!) by Mark Brogie.

As I have said before on this blog, fall birding is fun because it is a great time for rarities.  Many birders, myself included, enjoy searching for rare ducks every fall on the state’s lake, reservoirs and sewage lagoon (that’s right, sewage lagoons!).  Chief among these are the scoter species:  White-winged, Surf and Black.   Scoters breed up north and most of these birds migrate and winter along the coasts and the Great Lakes.  Small numbers, mostly immature birds, of all three species migrate inland in fall.  Finding a scoter requires persistence, patience and usually a decent spotting scope.  Identifying a scoter to species requires experience or a good field guide (a book, not a person) because immature scoters of all three species appear similar to one another, particularly when viewed from a distance.  Scoters are usually found as singletons or in very small groups in Nebraska, often in or near large mixed-species rafts of ducks.  They are also usually far from shore.  However, birders have become adept scoter hunters; finding all three species during one fall in Nebraska is not unusual, anymore.

immature Black Scoter
Most scoters found in Nebraska are immatures. This immature Black Scoter was at Pawnee Lake in October 2006.

Scoters were first recorded in Nebraska in the late 1800s.  Most early records, including many up through the middle part of the 20th Century (before the modern era of birding), involved birds killed and collected by (real) hunters.  Hunters occasionally harvest scoters, today.  For most of the overall period of record, the White-winged Scoter was the most frequently reported species in Nebraska and Black Scoter was the rarest.  For unknown reasons, this changed over the past twenty years.   White-winged Scoter has become the rarest and Black Scoter (and some years Surf) is the most frequently encountered.  Indeed, over the past five years I have encountered Black Scoters on many occasions, including groups of 18 and 22 on lakes in Lancaster County.  White-winged has been the one species I’ve missed some years.

adult White-winged Scoters
I found these two adult White-winged Scoters at Branched Oak Lake on tuesday (29 October).  At one time, White-winged Scoter was the most frequently encountered scoter, but over the past two decades it has become the rarest.   This sighting was a treat because both birds were adult males.

So far this year, Surf Scoter has been the species most frequently reported.  However, Surf Scoters are typically the earliest to move through the state and there is plenty of fall remaining.  Surf Scoters have been reported from Branched Oak, Pawnee, and Lewis and Clark Lakes, as well as Lake Ogallala this fall.  The sole White-winged Scoter report so far is the one pictured above from Branched Oak Lake.  Black Scoter is yet to be reported this fall.  If you’re interested in seeing where any of the three scoter species have been reported this year, check out ebird.org, where maps such as this one for Surf Scoter can be explored.

Surf Scoters
A typical scoter scene in Nebraska; a singleton or small group of immature birds far from shore between white caps on day with strong north winds. These two Surf Scoters were at Branched Oak Lake on 14 October 2013

As we move into late fall, other rare ducks to be on the lookout for include Long-tailed Duck (formerly known as Oldsquaw) and Barrow’s Goldeneye.  Long-tailed Ducks are also rare, but are reported annually.  Barrow’s Goldeneyes are most often observed in western Nebraska at sites such as Lake Ogallala or the Scottsbluff sewage lagoons (that’s right, sewage lagoons).  Occasionally, a Barrow’s is found in the east.  At least one Barrow’s Goldeneye is usually reported in the state each year.  Perhaps the rarest of the rare is the Harlequin Duck, which has been documented fewer than five times in the state.

Long-tailed Duck
Long-tailed Duck (bottom left) at Capitol Beach Lake, Lincoln, 5 December 2010. Long-tailed Ducks are often encountered right before winter settles in and lakes freeze over completely.

Below is amateur digi-scoped video showing Black Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks in Lancaster County in 2008.

You can also see video of a White-winged Scoter at Holmes Lake HERE.

Nongame Bird Blog

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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