Birders fear for life of rare duck spotted in Humboldt County

Common Pochard in Hyde Park, London England. August 2014.
Common Pochard in Hyde Park, London England. August 2014. John Sterling

An extremely rare duck spotted in Humboldt County has bird lovers feeling both delighted at the discovery and fearful that a hunter will shoot the waterfowl, which wandered far from its usual range.

Since Dec. 20, word has spread quickly via social media and email lists that a common pochard – a “mega rarity” in the birdwatching world – is mingling with several hundred other ducks on Freshwater Lagoon, about 45 miles from the California-Oregon border.

The common pochard is in a legal hunting zone, surrounded by nearly identical-looking species common in California.

Only three common pochards have ever been found in California before, according to a database maintained by the Western Field Ornithologists. An estimated 2 million of the birds live in Europe and Asia, and some occasionally wander east to Alaska.

For people passionate about birds, “It’s a big deal. It’s a huge deal,” said biologist and global birding tour guide John Sterling of Woodland.

“This would be only the fourth record for the lower 48 states,” he said. “The last one in California was in 1994, and there are lots of people who were not birding or even born then. This truly could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Sterling, who missed the previous California pochards, hurriedly drove more than five hours to see this one. He feared a hunter might accidentally kill the bird – or worse, that a trophy hunter would seek it out. Since the bird is common in Eurasia, and doesn’t breed in the United States, it is not given special protections from hunting here, said Chris Nicolai, a Reno-based migratory bird biologist for the Pacific Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That lack of protection has some birders concerned the duck may soon be dead.

“I lived in Humboldt County for 12 years, and there are hunters there who target rarities,” Sterling said by phone from Eureka. “A hunter found the first Humboldt County record of a Steller’s eider and shot it. He mounted it. I’ve seen the specimen. Other hunters have shot emperor geese up here. We’d get the word out to birders when an emperor was seen, and in two to three hours it would be shot. So now we don’t talk about them anymore.”

The pochard’s presence could not be suppressed. The Dec. 20 sighting was quickly reported on the American Birding Association’s Rare Bird Alert page on Facebook and discussed in the California Flyway Forum at DuckHunter.net. The bird was tweeted on Twitter. Emails flew. So did birders who chase rarities – three people immediately jumped on cross-country flights from Boston, Cincinnati and Chicago, while others drove hours, like Sterling, from elsewhere in California and on the West Coast.

Since then, birders and hunters have been converging daily at dawn on the lagoon shoreline. Some hunters ask what the people with spotting scopes are looking at, and conversation ensues about the pochard, then about other ducks, other waterfowl, and other wildlife. Then, usually, the hunter decides to go shooting somewhere else.

Conflicts between birders and hunters are rare. The two groups have a lot in common: Both are often very knowledgeable about bird biology, behavior, life cycles, migration patterns and habitat.

Both groups support wildland conservation. Hunters are especially proud of the central role they have played in funding the purchase of public lands through their hunting fees, and many nonhunting birders buy state duck stamps for the same reason.

Both groups have members who keep detailed records of every single bird they see or shoot. Some are trying to set records. Sterling, for instance, hopes to be the first person to see 600 bird species in California before his 60th birthday. (Now age 56, he’s at 592.) Hunter and California Waterfowl Association spokeswoman Holly Heyser, of Sacramento, has a spreadsheet of all the 745 ducks and geese she has killed.

Many birders chase rarities. But few hunters set out expressly to bag a rare bird. Still, it does happen. There is Sterling’s example of the trophy hunter in Humboldt County who intentionally shot the Steller’s eider. And in 2011, American Birding Association blog editor Nate Swick wrote about a trio of rare harlequin ducks in Utah whose existence was known locally. “(They) were apparently taken by hunters last week, leaving many birders – and hunters it must be said – with a bad taste in their mouths.”

And so some people are concerned that the common pochard could be shot. Rob Hewitt, an Arcata biologist and avid birder, added a protective vigil to a winter solstice gathering. “The hope is that waterfowl hunters don’t try and shoot it when we the bird lovers are there,” he wrote on Facebook.

In the San Francisco offices of Audubon California, public policy director Mike Lynes was sensitive to both the birders’ concerns and the sportsmen’s rights. “Our opinion falls in the middle. Audubon recognizes that a lot of bird conservation in the U.S., particularly in the West, has happened because of hunting interests in bolstering waterfowl refuges. That’s a major debt that those of us who love birds owe to hunters.

“My argument for why I hope someone doesn’t kill this duck is this: It would be nice if hundreds of people could enjoy this rare event, rather than just the one person who could shoot it.”

California Waterfowl spokesperson Heyser noted that the pochard might also fall victim to a case of mistaken identity, because it is hanging out with lookalikes, including redhead ducks and canvasback ducks.

That’s what recently happened on Sauvie Island, in Oregon, on the morning of Dec. 31, when lifetime hunter Lee Remmers of Portland shot a duck. He and friends were hunting legally on private property, with Oregon hunting licenses, state and federal duck stamps, and nontoxic ammunition. The flooded cornfield was rich in ducks, including American wigeon, green-winged teal, mallard, and northern pintail.

“It was chilly, around freezing, and a gray day, very still. The birds were not very active,” Remmers said by phone on Sunday. “I just looked back behind us and saw one bird flying by itself. It was a similar size to an American wigeon and that’s what I thought it was.”

He raised his shotgun and fired. The bird fell, dog Charlotte retrieved it, and Remmers took from her mouth a very odd duck. Back home, he looked online and talked with a local Audubon Society member to reach a positive identification. He had bagged a male Baikal teal, a species that typically breeds in Siberia and winters in eastern Asia. This bird is only the third recorded in the state.

“When I found out how rare it was, it turned out to be kind of a special day,” Remmers said. He added that, in general, if he was aware of a rare bird, he wouldn’t go out of his way to shoot it. “I am an ethical hunter, like the vast majority of hunters, and we wouldn’t do anything like that.”

He plans to have the Baikal teal mounted to display with other ducks he has killed.

The Humboldt County rare duck could save itself from a similar fate by sticking to protected waters.

Since it was first seen on Dec. 20 by local birder Jeff Allen, the common pochard has been moving around Freshwater Lagoon, which lies within an unusual hybrid of public lands named Redwood National and State Parks. The lagoon is divided down the middle by a management boundary. On the west, toward the Pacific Ocean, the lagoon waters are managed by the U.S. Park Service. No hunting is allowed there. But on the east, where the lagoon is managed by the state and California hunting laws apply, the pochard is fair game.

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