For two consecutive winters, an exotic avian visitor from Asia has had a strong influence on Colusa National Wildlife Refuge and the northern California communities surrounding it.
On Dec. 8, 2011, a Sacramento birding group spotted a beautiful male falcated duck resting conveniently close to a refuge wildlife observation deck. Falcated ducks have been sighted in North America outside Alaska just a few times. They breed in southeast Russia, northern Mongolia, China and Japan. Their global population is about 90,000. Most spend the nonbreeding season in China.
Soon, because falcated duck sightings are so rare, birders from across the country migrated to Colusa Refuge. Some drove all night to catch a glimpse. During the ducks winter 201112 stay the refugewhich normally receives about 15,000 visitors a yearsaw 10,000 to 12,000 visitors in two months.
We began calling him our celebrity duck because of the media attention and phone calls he generated. We created an overflow parking area. We enlisted more volunteers to answer questions and help manage crowds on the deck.
Uptick in Business
Small towns nearby noticed an uptick in business. Community leaders and owners of local hotels, motels and restaurants were proud of the refuges celebrity bird.
During that first stay, the duck often swam and rested with American widgeon, and he seemed to have a strong attraction to one particular female widgeon. He was not seen on the refuge after Feb. 10, which is when many waterfowl migrate northward.
Almost immediately after the falcated duck left, there was speculation about his future travels. Because of his affinity for the widgeon, I believe that he migrated with them and spent the summer in western Canada or Alaska. A question everybody asked: Would he return to Colusa Refuge in winter 201213?
I believed there was a good chance he would come back to the same pond he frequented in winter 201112 because site fidelity is common among migratory birds. Rare birds often reuse the same site multiple years because, it is thought, they know good feeding areas and safe locations where they can avoid danger.
So, over the summerin addition to normal maintenance to increase productivity of wetland unitswe improved the threemile auto tour route. We constructed several vehicle pullouts, added gravel and widened a portion. In early fall, we refilled wetlands with water to provide habitat for the migratory waterfowl that arrive by the thousands and stay through winter. Bird and visitor numbers increased. Some visitors were return customers who liked the changes to the auto tour route and said they had discovered the refuge the previous winter when they came to see the celebrity duck.
Then, on Dec. 2, 2012, he returned. While enjoying the sight and sound of whitefronted geese and talking with new volunteers on the viewing deck, I scanned the pond though my binoculars. I saw the falcated duck sleeping on the same island that he had favored the previous winter.
Although the falcated duck was last seen on the refuge on Dec. 22, 2012, in January 2013 birders were still traveling to the refuge from as far away as the East Coast looking for him. Fortunately, the thousands of Rosss and whitefronted geese and other migratory waterfowl that winter at Colusa Refuge provided great birding and photography opportunities for those duck chasers.
Will our celebrity duck return next winter? Who knows, but Im sure many visitors will be scanning the ponds next fall with hopes that he does.
Mike Peters is manager at Colusa and Sutter National Wildlife Refuges in California.