05 June 2012

Whistling Ducks Present in Cherry County

Contrary to their usual habits, two errant black-bellied whistling ducks left their typical haunts of southern climes with drought and dry conditions to visit northerly spaces.

Two were first reported at Lake Contrary, near St. Joseph along the Missouri River. A local birder, Larry Lade, had his eye on the two lingering at a yard by the lake. The two were first reported for May 24th. They continued their visit for eight days, Lade reported. They continued there until May 31st, Thursday.

Their Friday would be at some other place with suitable aquatic habitat.

A surprise sighting of two black-bellied whistling ducks along Goose Creek Valley, added this species to the list of more than 400 already known to occur within the Sand Hill region.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at a wetland along Goose Creek.
Photographs courtesy of Mary Sue Shoemaker.

Mary Sue Shoemaker was returning to their Crooked Bar D Ranch northwest of Elsmere on June 1st, when she noticed the two different-looking ducks in a small pond along the county road. Their unusual color and shape first attracted her attention as being notably different from the species typically present. In taking a closer look, she was able to identify the two ducks, as she is familiar with the species, having seen them previously in Texas.

"I couldn’t believe my eyes," Shoemaker said. "I was so excited to share the experience. I really forgot about pictures in the excitement and pleasure of observing them."

She then quickly drove the few miles to the ranch, and got three other observers, including her husband Ross. They returned to the pond where the bird’s presence was confirmed and enjoyed. Pictures of the habitat and birds were taken with a cell-phone camera.

The two ducks were busy feeding while they were being observed during a period of nearly two hours, she said.

This record also adds to the tally of species seen on the ranch and in Cherry county for the Shoemakers, who have rediscovered the enjoyment of watching birds, especially during the past five-to-ten years.

Closeup of the whistling ducks.

The two errant ducks were gone the next day, Mary Sue Shoemaker said, and with area ponds drying up due to a lack of sufficient precipitation, the birds were expected to have left the country.

The Shoemaker family has a heritage of interest in observing birds both in the county and during trips to other places. Her parents Donald and Lola Held had a similar interest and reported some of their observations in the Nebraska Bird Review during the mid-1950s.

The day after noting the whistling ducks, a female Wood Duck arrived at the ponds — another unusual sighting for those of the community interested in such happenings — obviously attracted to the bit of special fowl habitat. It may have been a bird that left another area due to a loss of nest or young, as wood ducks at this time of the year might typically have young ducklings to care for.

Then a single whistling duck was noted on June 4th, alone and calling — according to birder Shoemaker — at the same pond along the Goose Creek Road, up north of Elsmere. It was gone on the second visit, off to somewhere else. Other species about that day were long-billed curlews — including a group of seven feeding "on a meadow" — upland sandpipers, mallard and blue-winged teal. The trill of bobolinks was heard in the creek meadow, beyond the red-winged blackbird and heron places. Viewing more than 20 typical species of the Goose Creek country provided "a great morning in the area," Shoemaker said in her note to NEBirds.

One bird was still about, with one bird apparently gone, or perhaps it had been killed or died.

Might it have flown southward towards its normal range. A report on the Kansas bird forum provides an intriguing possibility. On June 4th, in the evening, a single whistling duck was observed by Scott Schmidt at Cheyenne Bottoms, in central Kansas.

In the sand hills, a single duck of particular note was still present on June 9th at the same pond where first seen, Shoemaker reported.

Did the birds have different intents. One staying put for a while, while the other preferred to head back towards the south? It is a possibility, though complete conjecture as there is no definitive evidence proving the occurrence.

Could this have been the saga — still ongoing — of two black-bellied whistling ducks?