“The reward of a thing well done is having done it.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Hunt For The Blue-billed Cutie
Every year since we started birding and counting species in earnest, there are always a handful of birds that elude us. While out west, it’s the iconic American Dipper — we win some, we lose some. In our immediate area, the declining Red-headed Woodpecker has not yet graced our list — not for lack of trying either. Many birds that squat my hometown of Houston are still not on my Life List.
Of late, it’s the Ruddy Duck. A stiff-tailed, blue-billed cutie, this duck’s range spans the US West and up into Canada during the warm months, down to us in Texas in the winter. With only three short months of winter, finding where groups of them settle in is hit-or-miss. Many of the wilder eBird water areas require quite a bit of driving for us — an hour or more.
Much of it boils down to being at the right place at the right time. Luck.
It was in Yellowstone National Park we watched for the first time Ruddy Duck males worked their leks. The lake was way off in the distance, and even our biggest lens glass didn’t help much. In the only photo to bring home, it was the buffalo grazing in the background stealing the show from the itty-bitty duckies in the water.
If you squint and look really closely, you can actually see their blue bills!
Male Ruddy Duck Lek
Yellowstone National Park 2014
A Better Close-up
(Photo Credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service)
If you enjoy bizarre bird courtship behavior, be sure to watch this short video on the unique lek of the male Ruddy Duck. Sound and sight are both needed; the video was also filmed in Yellowstone NP.
(Note to self: Must get back to Yellowstone.)
Later that same year at Anahuac NWR, some females were kind enough to pose for close-up photography, but sadly, no males. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the drab females — every one of every species. It’s just that I really want to get my own picture of the stiff-tailed cutie with blue bill and the funky hair.
We have not seen any since; Ruddy ducks were entirely absent from our 2015 List.
Thanks to eBird’s species sighting notification, we were prompted by email to visit a new park in the Houston area, Horsepen Creek Park. Another open space more intent upon human recreation than for wildlife protection, some water birds nevertheless make the water reservoir their temporary winter home. It’s all they’ve got anymore, I guess. When it was apparent these guys were regulars, if not out-of-season, we decided it was worth the miles-long trek.
Leaving the kids at home (yeah!) and strapping on the bikes, we headed to the traffic-stricken freeways. After more than an hour in the car and nearly another hour riding bikes around the very large reservoir, we finally spotted them in the distance, two duck-like birds with stiff, pointing-straight-up tails. Ruddy Ducks! But the setting sun was brightly behind them; a different angle was needed for a photo.
As we hustled to the other side of the lake, they were also intent upon joining up with a small group of American Coots. Thankfully, in this group they must have felt safe enough in their distance as they didn’t flee from my squatting, slightly invasive posture on the land.
Ruddy Duck #247, Front and Center
WYSIWYG, un-cropped image
You see what I saw!
As if that wasn’t luck enough, I had a split second to shoot a handsome pair of Mottled Ducks as they flushed up from the reeds in the creek. I had the camera already on my face and ready to shoot or I might otherwise have missed them.
In flight shots are always a delight for bird photographers.
Mottled Duck Pair
- eBird Checklist: Horsepen Creek Park 10/22/16 (More Images!)
- Yellowstone: Day1 and Yellowstone: Day 2
- Chasing Red-heads: An eBird Obsession
- Live. Bird. Repeat. Recharge.
What has been your favorite area bird chase?
Have you ‘caught’ him yet?