The Snowy Owl and Rusty Blackbird eBird alerts in February slowed from daily to occasional to non-existant. On cue, another bird took their spotlight: a male Eurasian Wigeon, here in Ithaca’s Stewart Park, located at the base of Cayuga Lake.
Eurasian Wigeons belong to the “irregular visitor” rare category. Like North American ducks, Eurasian ducks migrate far south from their breeding habitat to overwinter in India, China, Japan, Northern Africa, and so on. Though rare here, they are common enough to earn their own pages on Cornell’s All About Birds and National Audubon’s online guide. Personally speaking, reading or hearing about a Eurasian at least once a winter in New York isn’t a surprise. They show up somewhere. According to National Audubon, “examination of any winter flock of [American] wigeon is likely to reveal a male Eurasian among them, because the two wigeon species invariably flock together.” I haven’t yet read about a female Eurasian Wigeon sighting.
Our wigeon, to start with, is the American Wigeon, which breeds in Canada, Alaska, and the northern parts of Central United States. Males can be easily distinguished from other ducks by their thick, shiny, green apple stripe leading back from the eye. Additional notable field marks include white crown, gray head and neck, and an overall light brown body.
The Eurasian Wigeon breeds in northern Europe and Asia. He has similar plumage pattern to the American, most noticeably the white crown. Therein, the similarity ceases. The Eurasian lacks a mask; a chestnut-red fully colors his head. Additionally, his body is gray overall and a thin white stripe runs along the side of his body.
Both wigeons are dabbling ducks, like open wetland habitats, and primarily eat aquatic plants. They graze on land as well as on water. They can be opportunistic, grabbing at food found by geese, coots, and diving ducks. It’s not yet certain if Eurasians breed in North America. However, hybrids of American and Eurasian occasionally but regularly occur in Washington state, and Mexico and Baja California.
I’ve ticked Eurasian Wigeon four out of the five years as a birder. I saw my lifer during my second winter. He was floating in a Connecticut pond across the road from the Long Island Sound. I didn’t know it was a rare duck or that we sidetracked our trip to chase it.
I once had the luck of easily locating one by myself with binoculars. Last winter, at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, I picked it out of only about a hundred waterfowl. May’s Point is rather small compared to most of the refuge’s hotspots. The ducks were confined and relatively close to the viewing dock. The Eurasian’s head is key with which to start. Mind that he has dark eyes. Redheads have yellow eyes. Canvasbacks have red eyes.
Finding a Eurasian can also be like finding a Cackling Goose among thousands of Canada Geese – truly finding a needle in a haystack. Last autumn, I visited the Montezuma wildlife drive with friends. (The drive squares around a huge open marsh. Thousands upon thousands of waterfowl can fit in there. You can only scratch the surface from the road alone, even with a scope.) We’d heard about reports before going in. We spent a good while steadily shifting our scopes to peruse hundreds of waterfowl, which included up to 500 American Wigeon. Alas, we couldn’t locate the Eurasian even though we went on the wildlife drive at least four times during the weekend.
A well-known birder spotted the Eurasian at Stewart Park on the morning of February 22. The park is about ten minutes from my house. Because of my Snowy Owl failures, I wasn’t feeling terribly confident about chasing birds. (My Rusty Blackbird moment happened on accident.) I received several eBird emails throughout the day. After a long leisurely walk that afternoon, I checked my email to see a very recent alert. I grabbed my keys and bins. When I arrived, a couple birders with scopes were there. Sure enough, the wigeon was still present, but they were trying to re-locate a Cackling Goose.
I scanned the line of Canada Goose, Mallards, and American Wigeons crowded the edge of the ice shelf. Barely a minute passed when I saw the Eurasian. He was chasing an American, neck extended, bill snapping. He then waddled to the water and preened.
One of the birders lent me his scope. The Eurasian’s red head and cream stripe stood out boldly even against the gray water and the gray ice. I took advantage of his stillness to compare his plumage with that of his North American counterpart.
Thick snow had fallen for much of the day but stopped during my walk. As I watched the wigeon, the dense clouds to the west parted to let golden sun touch and enliven his red. A fog formed to obscure the western side of the basin and the hill beyond. Our side remained clear. So did our sight of the wigeon.