Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On This Date In History on Tommy D's Birding Expeditions: The Third Ironic Charm of Melanitta

I've always kept the saying, "Third time's a charm" in mind.  There's always that one time.  And if your lucky, there may be a second time, but a third time, then there's something outstanding in the making.  A third straight time is something significant.  If your dating someone, when you first start dating, one or two dates is one thing, but a third time is something much more.  Two times is enough to get a feel for someone, but if it stretches to a third time, than there must be something in store.  A third time almost feels like a routine.  In the video game, NBA JAM, if a player makes a basket three times in a row without someone else scoring, they go "ON FIRE".  Once they are on fire, they can make all sorts of crazy shots and sky scraping dunks from all over the court.  And I guess this applies in basketball in real life, too.  When I've hit the court, I'll make a three pointer and then come back and make another three pointer.  Two three pointers in a row, what's the big deal?  It's really not much.  If the third goes down, the confidence shoots way up to extend the streak.  The third power has the magical power.  If the attempt doesn't go down, then the process starts all over again.  I guess it goes with most things too.  If you don't like someone the first two times you meet them, than chances are you probably won't like them on the next and charming-truth moment on the third time.  And vice versa for a very cool person, there are both good and bad charms.  There's a third-times-a-charm stories in birding too, and boy do I sure have a crazy story to tell that shows that exact sequence.  When I was a little boy, I noticed some weird ducks in my field guides that don't luck like any rubber duck.  They have come in three's and belong to their own genus, which is called Melanitta.  I looked at these ducks and said, "What in the heck is a Scooter".  In my clueless mind at the time, I thought it was pronounced like the child sliding scooter that can be ridden on.  But these ducks, Scoters are pronounced "Sco-ter", like it is spelled.  I guess I always had dumb things in my mind.

Despite Scoters are weird, they are also very cool!  All are rare in Arizona, and I was dying to see them.  I figured it was inevitable that one would be discovered at a location near me.

Over the years, I always thought of Scoters as bizarre and weird looking ducks, which they really are.  They are really cool-looking at the same time too.  All three species, the Surf, Black, and White-winged Scoters are heavy set sea ducks that are common at sea but uncommon to rare inland in North America.  People often describe them as floating "shoe boxes".  All of them are rare in Arizona, and I'm happy to say that I have seen all of them in Arizona.  It took me awhile to see all three of them, but I did it in crazy fashion.  While all three Scoters are rare in Arizona, I saw them in order from what is considered to be the rarest to then the most expected.  I may be strange too, but that doesn't even compare to how strange Scoters are.  And true to the weird thoughts I had about them when looking at them in my field guide, I encountered them in very strange ways.  It took the third Scoter to say that these birds are charmingly weird and so are encounters with them.  This date in the history of Tommy D's Birding Expeditions will take place when I found my final and third Scoter in Arizona three years ago from today.  And I'll tell you, it was freaking weird.   Follow along for the story of how I got to see all three strange Melanittas.

On November 14th, 2010, I was out-and-about in Maricopa County and was working on my Maricopa County Big Year for the 2010 calendar year.  I was birding at the Glendale Recharge Ponds that day.  My big year was going very well at the time, and I'll admit, I didn't check Glendale Recharge Ponds as well as I could've checked them.  So I left and started to head home after walking past a gigantic raft of American Coots on Pond 6.  Meanwhile, my cousin, Trevor Knupp was out delivering pizza at his Domino's Pizza job at the time.  Trevor's designated area of town for customers and pizza deliveries was Peoria and Arrowhead, which is north and northwest of Phoenix.  But one of Trevor's co-workers couldn't make a delivery, and that directed Trevor to an unfamiliar side of town in the southwest part of the city in a community near 99th and Camelback.  And Glendale Recharge Ponds is on 107th and Camelback.  And in the time that Trevor worked at Domino's Pizza, it was the only time he had to go on this side of town and it was an accidental situation that made him come in that direction.  Weird.  As I left Glendale and started to head east while going back home on Camelback, I got a text message from fellow birder Melanie Herring.  Melanie said in her text, "Hey, did you see the Scoter at Glendale Recharge Ponds?!!  I'm at the Salton Sea now, but I'm heading back now in hopes of getting to see it on my way back!"  I was stunned at the text, I was just there!  She didn't say the species yet, but I was just amazing there was a Melanitta at Glendale.  And plus, I found out about a Melanitta from a Melanie, what close resemblance in names.  After asking Melanie more details, she said, "It was a Black one, and it's in pond 6 mixed in with a bunch of coots".  I had walked by the coots without paying any attention to them.  Birder Jeff Ritz reported the bird to the Listserv, and the Scoter was found my Tucson birder Brian Walsh earlier in the day.  By this time, I had to do a u-turn and head straight back to the Glendale Recharge Ponds.  The street was crowded, so I had to settle on turning into a small neighborhood turnoff.  Luckily, I was still very close to the Glendale Recharge Ponds and could be back in minutes, but I was still overly anxious to look for the Scoter as soon as possible.  After turning into the neighborhood, I did a quick u-turn.  Just as I was heading back to go westbound on Camelback Road, a familiar car pulled into the neighborhood as I was pulling out of it.  I looked up and saw a freaky replica of my cousin Trevor Knupp and we both saw each other at the same time.  Both of us had our mouths hanging open in freaky disbelief and we kept staring at each other as we very slowly drove by one another.  We are lucky no one was in front of us, or we may have rear-ended them.  The two of us continued to stare at each other while looking over our shoulders.  I thought, "was that really Trevor?"  I looked at the car, a car the Knupp family used for years, and I saw the Domino's pizza sign on the top of it.  With that combination, I knew it had to be Trevor.  I was freaked out at the randomness that all took place in 30 seconds.  From leaving Glendale to being told seconds later there was a Scoter at Glendale and then to pull into some random neighborhood to chase the Scoter and look up and see one of my lifelong best friends at this random turnoff delivering pizzas has to be the most bizarre series of events that has happened in my lifetime.  After the very very possible Trevor Knupp sighting, I went back to Glendale.  I parked by Pond 6 and ran out to scan the coot flock.  Within minutes, I re-found the Black Scoter.  It was an adult male in breeding plumage, which is a very striking bird.  Black Scoter is the rarest of the three Scoters in Arizona (once again, all are rare), and it is really rare to ever find an adult bird like this in the state.  Most of the wanderers are young birds.  I enjoyed the bird for the rest of daylight, where I was joined by many other eager birders including Melanie.  My first Scoter was quite the bizarre experience.  And I did text Trevor to confirm my sighting of him, and he kinda texted me too to make sure he saw me.  It was freaking bizarre, the entire day.  I should have written Trevor down in my field notes, that was way more ironic than the Scoter thing.  If I was five seconds quicker in turning around, I would've missed Trevor completely.  It's a hilarious story we still enjoy to this day, and a crazy one I'll remember my first Scoter by!  And I started my three-Scoter journey off by seeing the rarest, and an epic life bird.

The Glendale Black Scoter.  Wow, what a striking adult male.

Here's a picture of Trevor just for the heck of it.  The one time he took up birding.

December 2nd, 2010 was a neat day in history for Arizona birding.  Birding phenomenon and San Diego resident Gary Nunn discovered Arizona's first ever Baikal Teal at Gilbert Water Ranch.  Gary randomly decided to bird at Gilbert Water Ranch one evening and he happened to notice a different duck floating in midst of a large flock of Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal.  As a top notch world birder, Gary already basically knew what it was, but when the Baikal Teal lifted it's head up, Gary then celebrated his discovery.  On the 3rd of December, it was an early Christmas present for Arizona birders and neighboring states.  This was not only a rare bird for Arizona, but the Baikal Teal is very rare for North America.  Baikal Teal is a Eurasian duck, and it caused a huge uproar.  I, with hundreds of others, got their first ever glimpse of this studly duck for the first time.  Because of the Baikal Teal's odd presence, it led to many birders chasing the bird and birding to and fro to Phoenix at other places.  And the heavy crowds led to other rarities being discovered too.  A Dusky-capped Flycatcher was found by John Yerger at Gilbert Water Ranch, in which the species is considered casual to accidental in Arizona in winter, especially somewhere like Maricopa County.  Because of the Baikal Teal, it was just an odd time for birding, and it was one of my first ever mega-rarities for North America.  Baikal Teal was being stamped on everything by every birder in Arizona, and I was considering getting a tattoo of one.

Arizona's first Baikal Teal, and probably the only..

As the Black Scoter day was still fresh in my mind as also being strange, I thought another scoter would likely come at a weird time too.  Paul Lehman, one of North America's very top birders, was coming from San Diego to chase the Baikal Teal.  Along the way, he stopped at a Wastewater Treatment Plant in Gila Bend.  This plant has two ponds, and on one of them, Paul found a White-winged Scoter!  Paul's Scoter discovery came on the 4th of December, and it floored me when I read the report.  It took a miraculous bird and a miraculous and odd discovery for the White-winged Scoter to be located.  I had to work on the 5th, but I was off of work on the 6th.  At the crack of dawn on the 6th, I was in Gila Bend.  As it got light out, I looked out onto the pond and quickly found the White-winged Scoter.  It was a young bird and it was awesomely plain-looking.  I enjoyed it for about 30 minutes, and I celebrated the fact that I had two Scoter species in a couple weeks apart from each other after not seeing any Scoter species previously.  If the Baikal Teal joined that flock, that would be three rare and awesome ducks in the time span, I'll keep it at that.  In Arizona, the White-winged Scoter is the second rarest Scoter in Arizona.  With this chase and sighting, I officially sealed the deal that I would see Arizona's three rare Scoters from rarest to most regular.  And when I told Arizona birding legend Troy Corman, he looked at me in flat out shock and said, "Tommy, your just wrong!".

Good morning White-winged Scoter

So I had only one Scoter left, the Surf Scoter.  In Arizona, the Surf Scoter is said to be annual but rare and present in small numbers in fall and sometimes winter.  White-winged is usually annual but is a once-a-year type of bird a lot of times and Black is thought to be much more rare than the other two with a record every few years.  But in recent years, the two rarer ones have increased in Arizona, especially along the Lower Colorado River because of two epic birders named David and Lauren.  As I kept the Surf Scoter in the back of my mind, I figured it would pop up at a time I least expected it.  October 29th, 2011 then rolled around.  Like 2010, I was doing another Big Year in Maricopa County.  2011's Big Year was off to a better role, and I was in Fountain Hills on the 29th.  I birded at a riparian drainage in the town, because the drainage looked awesome and I was hoping to find an eastern warbler or something else rare in it.  The drainage was dead however, and I then had a text message come in from Melanie Herring, the same lady who texted me about the Black Scoter in 2010 at Glendale Recharge Ponds.  Melanie said:  "Tommy, Kurt Radamaker just found a Surf Scoter at Glendale Recharge Ponds, you should come see it!".  I thought, "Wow, I've gotta get out of freaking Fountain Hills immediately".  I was two miles away from my truck in the Fountain Hills riparian habitat and I booked it back to my vehicle.  Fountain Hills felt like a crapshoot and I wanted out, fast.  I also thought it was weird to hear about another Scoter from Melanie, or Melanie Melanitta.  It was the third straight day I was having great but stressful success on my Big Year.  Chases are stressful.  On the 27th, Melanie found a Herring Gull in Palo Verde (Melanie Herring finds a Herring Gull, what is with this lady and bird names with what I was after-lol) an Eastern Phoebe on the 28th, and then this Surf Scoter on the 29th.  During my Big Years, chases were anxiety filled because of desire to land those birds and get closer to the Big Year records.  And for a third straight day, I was feeling the anxiety and I was feeling the stress.  Glendale (my patch) is over an hour from Fountain Hills, and I thought it was going to be another long drive filled with anxiety.  The bird was likely to stay put of course, but it was a lifer, a Melanitta puzzle making piece, and was a Big Year Bird.  I started to rush out of Fountain Hills quickly, when something came to mind.  Fountain Hills is home to a large lake, one that I've visited many times.  It has a fountain that shoots straight up hourly for about 10 minutes per shoot-up, and it is a tourist attraction at being the highest shooting fountain in the world.  The lake also attracts waterfowl and other waterbirds.  I thought, "why not check it real quick, just in case".  I was on my way to a Surf Scoter chase after all, I needed this to be quick.  As I started to scan the lake, I found a big group of ducks.  In the middle of them was a larger and robust looking duck, and it almost reminded me of that old floating shoe box.  I had a feeling right-off-the-bat that it was a Scoter.  The duck lifted it's head, and yep, it was a Scoter!  I looked closer, and saw that it was a Surf Scoter!  The shock of the sighting was unreal.  I was on my way to Glendale for a Surf Scoter chase, and I found my OWN Surf Scoter on the way to the chase.  How often does that happen?  After all, these birds are rare, they aren't these American Wigeons that show up on every pond.  The Surf Scoter was a distance away from me, and I quickly made my way around the lake to get closer to the Scoter.

Surf Scoter at Fountain Hills, are you freaking kidding me!

When I got close to the Scoter, it had it's head down for a few minutes and was resting.  I called my friend Brendon Grice and he was already on his way when he got my call, as Surf Scoter was a life bird for him also.  Once the bird lifted it's head up, it then started to swim very close to the shore.  I was starting to consistently be about 10 feet away from the bird.  The unbelievable was unfolding right in front of my eyes, and I practically could have touched the Scoter if I wanted to get a little wet.  It seemed to be exhausted, and was relentlessly feeding on plants that were along the sides of Fountain Hills Lake.  As I continued to follow it, another duck was swimming up to it, and this other duck was another Surf Scoter!  The two meet up and began to feed together, just feet in front of me.  It was bizarre.  I called Brendon up and told him there were two of them.  As I called him, he happened to be pulling up to the side of the lake that I was on, and he could see me from where he was on the road.  He stopped in the middle of the road and looked through his binoculars.  Brendon said, "Please don't tell me that those are the freaking birds right in front of you".  It was hilarious and Brendon and I were soon getting awesome continued looks at the Surf Scoters.  Brendon is a great avian photographer, one the best in Arizona.  The Scoters continued to be unafraid of us and kept feeding along the shore.  Brendon even took pictures of me with one of the birds.  It was certainly a day to remember and was an awesome way to complete my Melanitta triple!  Many birders came to Fountain Hills the next day after I posted my sighting, where the Scoters continued for a few more days.  I don't know what was better: seeing the new lifer or going on a rarity chase and finding that specific rarity on the way to my chase!  What a thrilling day.

Most lifers aren't like this.  I couldn't wipe the smile off my face that day even if I tried.  Photo by Brendon Grice.

And I did go see the Surf Scoter at Glendale on the following day.  After all, Glendale is my patch.

The Surf Scoter I began to chase was still around on the following day.

Scoters are cool, but they are also weird, and they all showed up at the weirdest of times.  What awesome birds, and I'll enjoy these first time memories of these "sea" ducks for the rest of my life!  Next month on This Date in History on Tommy D's Birding Expeditions, another ironic story will be told that unfolded in a patch of grass.  Stay tuned!


  1. This was a thrilling read, Tommy, complete with all kinds of crazy coincidences! The Scoters alone would have made a great post, but the circumstances under which it all happened is ridiculously fun. And a Baikal Teal?! I tell you what - if another one ever shows up, you get ahold of me and I'll be in Phoenix in just a few hours.

    I have been on the fence about going on a sea-duck field trip on the North Shore of Lake Superior in couple weeks. I think the deal is sealed now.

    1. Thanks Josh! The three experiences were very fun to live, and were of course some of the strangest sequences I have ever seen in my life. I hope another Baikal will show up, I will be sure to let you know, its an awesome freaking bird!

      I'm glad your going on a sea duck trip, your in for a real treat!

  2. Speaking of coincidences and rare ducks, last April a birding friend asked me to join him to go look at waterfowl on an area marsh. I wasn't able to go, but I wished him well and told him to go find us a Garganey. Not surprisingly, his response was full of sarcasm. Then a few days later we both found ourselves just across the border in Wisconsin looking at a Garganey! The continual surprises is what makes this hobby so great -- I've come to expect the unexpected!

    Again, this is a great post that reminds us of the serendipity of birding.

    1. That's awesome Josh! Garganey is an awesome bird, I would love to be able to see that bird as well. Arizona has one record, just like the Baikal Teal. That's funny an actual Garganey showed up a few days later after your comment. And Garganey is a great ABA rarity too, you made a great call!