Travelling Brief

Black-bellied Whistling Duck is something of an enigma as a vagrant. There are multiple records well north of their core breeding range, often involving flocks as well as individuals. As a duck, it carries the stigma of being someone’s pet whenever it appears as a vagrant and, to be fair, a good percentage of rare wildfowl do come from supposedly captive sources. I say supposedly because the keepers should mark their birds, preferably with coloured bands, just so that we know what to ignore and what to legally admire. That many don’t, says a lot about slack legislation regarding keeping bird and the trade in birds in general. When a potential vagrant shows up it also results in a judgement call being made; wild or fence-jumper; tick or not.

On June 9th, Paul Gould saw and photographed a Black-bellied Whistling Duck arriving off the sea at Baccaro, Shelburne Co, NS. In these circumstances you have to give the bird the benefit of the doubt and I think you can only append ‘unknown origin’ to a duck (or any species) that displays signs of having been in captivity. True, something like a Muscovy in Canada should be sniffed at, but a species with a documented history of vagrancy should be considered good unless there is real evidence to the contrary. A few days after the Baccaro bird, a Facebook request for a birder requiring a lift to look for a mystery bird at Musquodoboit Harbour, Halifax, made a few sit up and wonder what required such an approach? A few texts later and it transpired that a non-birder had seen (what were possibly) 18 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and they were searched for but not found and so that was probably that.

Roll forwards to June-18th and the ducks were in fact present and had settled into a routine of attending a free food supply, in itself not a crime against listing them, just opportunism. David Bell was the first birder to see them, checked for obvious signs of one previous, if careless, ownership and the word went out. The species has a history in NS, some were dodgy, others good and these new and apparently wild birds represented perhaps the third provincial record of wild birds, pending the usual revelations and rumours, as always happens with vagrant ducks. The chance of seeing them seemed high and so a car departing Shelburne County was assembled and the road hit.

It was good to get away from fog-bound Shelburne, Queens, Lunenberg, Halifax, oh wait, bugger, fog everywhere. The trip was quick, light of traffic and a lengthy discussion regarding the purchase of $30. drawers (briefs) by Ervin kept us entertained. Naturally the other male occupants of the car, myself and Mike, were astonished that such a garment could command such a hefty price, especially when Frenchy’s offer recently enjoyed items, sometimes still warm, at discount prices. We presumed that there may have been something special, like a musical feature with Ervin’s prized drawers, maybe they played songs from the shows or classics like Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ or even ‘Great Balls of Fire’, thankfully we will never know. Sandra, our other would-be ducker, kept a diplomatic silence on the issue.

We got to the spot, nothing. The ducks had winged it after having had their breakfast and so we repaired to a local café for our own. There then followed six or so hours of shunting and shuffling, a trip along the nearby Mines Road for boreal species and then back to the spot, resigned to a long wait until they came back to roost, or not as the case may be. No ducks greeted us on arrival, so, after a while, we decided to go off and search a wider field. We were recently car borne when Diane and Sylvia arrived and, as we chatted window to window, I saw the ducks in the wing mirror, coming in for a late lunch. Much reversing and maneuvering later and we had views as the ten circled around but were reluctant to land. Close by some chaps were building a house and noisily hammering away, maybe that put them off, or it could have been the old guy on his lawn tractor cutting their field, a sure sign that the birds are wild as North American Birds offline states that wild Black-bellied Whistling Ducks will not land in front of any brand of ride-on mower, I think.

Most of us enjoyed distant views of them sitting on a house roof (130m away) while Ervin somehow got himself made an honorary builder and climbed up the scaffold to take his shots at eye-level. It turned out that the builder owned the house that the ducks were currently decorating in more ways than one and was very interested in all the excitement. We waited a while longer and passed on the news but the ducks were settled. Eventually and with the job done, we headed home, ducks in the bag so to speak.

Later, others arrived and the old fellow had removed all obstacles to ducks and the birds came close for photos. By this time the bright lights of Halifax were way behind us as we headed back south to the land that time forgot. The ducks are added to the list in medium to heavy pencil, pending, always pending. They all appear to be of the northern race, as expected of a vagrant and they have all their bits intact and no adornments. Unless someone produced a receipt, I think they will stay wild, meanwhile, on a roof near you, we are missing eight more!

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