Seltener Irrgast

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

January 22, 2011

A pile of puddle ducks in a little bit of unfrozen water is a fairly common sight here in winter. What is uncommon is the suave gent in the upper right hand corner.

Puddle ducks in a drainage ditch

Puddle ducks in a drainage ditch

When we were stationed in Europe in the late 1980s, I had a used copy of Parey’s Vogelbuch–an excellent field guide to European birds–which I found in a flea market shortly after our arrival. Unhappily for me, the book was written in German. I don’t speak (or read) German. I did, however, learn a few words and phrases: brutkleid meant breeding plumage (literally breeding clothes), and a rare vagrant was a seltener Irrgast. One of these seltener Irrgasten was the Spießente–the Pintail Duck, a duck I knew as a “Sprig” from my first two decades, growing up on the Delmarva Peninsula.



Now, I suspect that more than a few Pintails pass over these mountains during migration, but it is fairly uncommon–if not rare–to have one show up in a drainage ditch in a farm field and hang around for three weeks. But that’s what happened during the last week of January through the first half of February 2009. Normally these birds head for the shallow bays of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. I have seen them by the hundreds at Blackwater Refuge in Maryland and Bombay Hook in Delaware.

This was a fine-looking drake, all decked out in his best brutkleid, and he was invariably in the company of a very dapper little hen–you can see her feeding behind him in the photo above. There are more pictures of this pair in my galleries.

It is interesting to speculate on why this pair were here, and not, well, somewhere else, somewhere that you would expect them to be in midwinter.  Such speculation by a professional wildlife conservationist, or a dedicated birdwatcher, could lead to a hypothesis worthy of further investigation.

Such speculation by folks like me is just plain fun.

The Mallards I understand. They’re “local folks,” and they don’t wander far. There is almost always open water somewhere. But why should this pair of birds come here–moreover, why should they stay?  There can’t possibly be so much food in that little ditch that the living was easier–or safer–than it would be on some Delmarva mudflat surrounded by thousands of acres of cornfields.

One of the great things about observing nature is that we never understand all of it, but the creatures are amazing, the puzzles are endless and fascinating, and the combination of exquisite little mysteries is beautiful in both its intricacy and its grandeur.

And change is constant.

Puddle ducks

Moving on


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