A wild duck chase becomes mission impossible
American Black Ducks can be surprisingly elusive in Illinois
My grandmother used to refer to “winter projects.” In regards to my life in birding, every winter has been a window for me to finally see, with my own eyes, an American Black Duck. My sole winter project was to find this waterfowl. Since 2018, I have had it listed as a seasonal target bird to tick off the year list. Then the years went by and no Black Duck. It became a life list addition mission.
How can a Black Duck develop into a “nemesis bird,” the bird that got away? I read up on the decline of the population due to habitat loss. They really need shallows in ponds to feed on aquatic vegetation. They use these water plants to hide as well, not just from me but from predation. Then there’s the hybridization with Mallards that produce hybrid offspring that aren’t truly Black Ducks with little hope of passing along their genes.
Known as the “wild duck” or “black mallard” in New England, this species has been elusive. Reports from that region still outnumber our Illinois records. Whether it was mixed in with mallards or I just truly overlooked it, I can’t emphasize enough how much I have tried to locate one. Small ponds by a business, manmade or natural lakes were no-go’s. Shallow coves proved fruitless not just in Sangamon County but elsewhere on our travels.
A recent early March day, however, seemed different. I read an eBird report that there were at least three Black Ducks in a nearby fluddle. With winter behind us could this actually be the chance I have been waiting for? It’s a different environment for the search with a flooded field, why not try? I loaded the kids in the car, and we were off. The promise of donuts to celebrate had them ready to go.
I have not explored this particular area in daylight. The road is along my MOON (owl/nightjar monitoring) Route. It sure is less foreboding in daylight (and the dense woods were home to a Pileated Woodpecker). When we arrived at the turn-off, there was the open flooded field filled with ducks! Incredible variety, all swimming along when a Bald Eagle swooped in and pandemonium ensued. Both me and the kids yelped “Nooo!!” as so many ducks flew off while we were still setting up our spotting scope.
Fortunately the eagle left; this statement seems crazy considering how scarce our national symbol was when I was a little boy (my family had to take me and my brothers to the zoo to see one). Thirty some years, later I am cringing seeing one spook this array of waterfowl. Thankfully the scare was short lived. The ducks returned!
There were so many Pintails, Gadwalls, Teals, Shovelers, Wigeons, Redheads, and Canvasbacks. All at a flooded field. How can this be? Then mixed in with the numerous Mallards was something different. Larger, darker, contrasting gray neck to the beak. The Black Duck was there, five birds in total. It was such a fulfilling sighting, so many past memories came to me while I was finding joy in my first sighting being shared with my children and thanking my fellow county birder for a great tip. And then, there were donuts had by all.
In an early version of this piece, I referred to Gadwalls as “Gladwalls.” I chuckled about my Freudian slip. The thing is I have only 12 sightings of this species. Apparently it was more of a Great Plains to southern Illinois waterfowl resident, until the introduced Eurasian water milfoil plants provided an abundant food source.