Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tufted Duck: A historical perspective of this former review list species

By Dave Irons -- OBRC Member

Tufted Duck first appeared in Oregon on 14 Feb 1960, when the late David Marshall found an adult male wintering on a small pond in Laurelhurst Park in northeast Portland (Nehls 2003). This bird remained to at least 26 March of that year. It would be 18 more years before another Tufted Duck was detected in the state. On 15 October 1978, OBRC member Jeff Gilligan identified a presumed female at the sewage treatment plant (now Fernhill Wetlands) in Forest Grove, Washington County (OBRC "Accepted Records thru 2014"). This bird, the first that was 'chaseable' in the modern era, was a lifer for many Oregon birders who are still active today.
By late winter, an adult male Tufted Duck is pretty unmistakeable. Note the pristine white flanks, jet black back, long wispy tuft feathers, and the curving transition between the white flanks and the black on the back.  This bird was seen along the Columbia River near Portland on 6 April 2013. (Photo by Dave Irons)                

Starting in the early 1980's, Tufted Ducks began to appear with increasing frequency and by turn of the millennium more than 20 accepted records had accrued. The species was removed from Review List in 2001. As one might expect, all but five of the 23 accepted records have involved adult males, which are readily identified by their gleaming white flanks, jet black backs and long wispy feathers trailing from their hindcrowns. All reports of adult males have fallen between 15 January and 8 May, with a decided Feb-Mar spike.

In addition to the aforementioned October 1978 bird,  four additional "females" were found during the years when the OBRC was still reviewing records. These included the first Tufted Duck from east of the Cascades–one at Rufus, Sherman County 5-7 April 1997 (photographed by former OBRC member Craig Miller)–and the only other reports from outside the Jan-May date range. On 22 December 1983 the late Joe Evanich found a presumed female was discovered on Wapato Lake near Gaston, Washington County and a female (presumed returnee from the previous Spring) was back at Rufus 31 Oct-13 Dec 1997 (Nehls 2003).

Since 2000, Tufted Ducks have been found annually in Oregon during late winter and spring. Individual birds often return to the same sites year after year. One male, a presumed migrant as it was never seen during winter, showed up on the same section of an impoundment in the Fisher Unit of Fern Ridge Wildlife Area west of Eugene for at least three successive springs. Similarly, at least one adult male has been among the massive scaup flocks along Marine Drive near the Portland Airport for five years running and a Tufted Duck X Scaup hybrid has been seen along this stretch of the Columbia River for three straight winters. The recent uptick in detections along the Columbia (in both Oregon and Washington) has coincided with a major increase in the numbers of both Greater and Lesser Scaup wintering along the Columbia from the Mid-Columbia Basin in eastern Washington downstream to the mouth.

This Tufted Duck, photographed along the Columbia River near
Portland on 8 December 2012, is still molting. Its dingier
gray flanks might allow it lurk undetected in a large raft of scaup.
(Photo by Dave Irons)
One might wonder why Tufted Ducks are rarely found before mid-January or even later. Part of the explanation may be molt timing. Many North American duck species don't initiate their prebasic molt until mid-to-late fall and it has been shown that their Asian counterparts molt even later, sometimes not starting their head and body molt until December. Thus, while likely present, an adult male Tufted Duck in Oregon during late fall/early winter could easily go unnoticed if it is still in mostly alternate/eclipse plumage. This plumage aspect is cryptic and female-like, with males showing no white on the flanks and little if any evidence of a tuft.

Another identification issue is hybridization. As the number of Tufted Ducks wintering in North America increases, one might expect that the number Tufted Ducks pairing with scaup would increase accordingly. When found, male Tufted Duck X Scaup hybirds lack the long tuft feathers, but do show a short stubby nub coming off the hindcrown. This abbreviated tuft is suggestive of what one sees in illustrations of young or molting male Tufteds. The flanks of such birds may be quite white, but in most photos of putative hybrids, the transition between the dark back and the pale flanks tends to to follow a straighter horizontal line. Finally, the backs on hybrids are not jet black like they appear on a pure adult male Tufted. Instead, the back has a slightly paler and grayer look to it and under close inspection some fine pale gray vermiculations can be seen on the mantle. Here's a link to a nice discussion and some comparative photos of pure male Tufted Ducks and putative hybrid male Tufted Duck X Scaup from Great Britain: Needless to say, picking out a hybrid female would be a challenge.

Although no longer on the Review List, finding a Tufted Duck in Oregon is still exciting. This species has been found in almost all of western Oregon's counties, but would still be an addition to the list for most counties east of the Cascades. As noted above, late winter through early spring is the best time of year to find a Tufted Duck. They are typically found in the company of scaup, particularly along the Columbia River and on larger bodies of water. There are also a number of records from sewage treatment impoundments and small ponds.

As always, we invite your comments and feedback. Please let us know if you find this sort of review informative and useful.

Sources cited:

Nehls, Harry B. 2003. Tufted Duck. Pp. 112 in Birds of Oregon: A General Reference. D.B. Marshall, M.G. Hunter, and A.L. Contreras, Eds. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR.

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