On October 31, 2018 a beautiful male Mandarin Duck was discovered in Central Park, New York. It was an instant sensation attracting thousands of birders, photographers, and curiosity seekers. It immediately spawned media mania dominating the headlines of newspapers, television news, talk show circuits and was even declared most popular bird in the world. A few days later a Mandarin was discovered in Burnaby Lake, and it also attracted thousands of adoring fans and became the darling of the west coast media. Fast forward a year and a half, and Vancouver Island had its own beautiful and flamboyant male Mandarin Duck, but with the COVID-19 precautions there was no fanfare, publicity, or pandemonium - no interviews, press coverage, or tv appearances. Instead, it languished in peaceful anonymity and was only enjoyed by a few lucky birders, photographers, naturalists, and local residents in the Morningstar area.
The Mandarin is a cousin to our fairly common local Wood Ducks. The male Wood Duck is gorgeous in its own right, but standing next to the Mandarin it seems rather plain. With its red bill and a rainbow of colours in its flowing plumes the Mandarin is considered by many as one of the most beautiful ducks in the world. It is native to southeast Asia and has a breeding range in eastern Russia, wintering range in southeast China, and year-round population in Japan. Not surprisingly, the Mandarin has been prized as a captive species at hobby farms and petting zoos all over the world including Coombs and Bowser. Of course, over the years there were escapees and feral populations have been established in Britain and even as close as Sonoma, California.
Curious onlookers always ask where the duck came from. The automatic response from most birders is that it escaped from a hobby farm or petting zoo. They could be right, but the fact is they have absolutely no proof. Some captive birds have leg bands for identification, but the Morningstar Mandarin didn't have any leg bands. According to the hobby farm in Coombs its three pairs were safely locked up in a double-door pen, and they hadn't heard of any escapee from the Bowser farm.
The only problem with the automatic escapee response is that it stifles the imagination. Why couldn't the Mandarin be a vagrant from Asia? The Mandarin is migratory and could have easily followed some Eurasian Wigeons that make the same trip from Russia to Vancouver Island every fall. In fact, a Tufted Duck from the same region arrived in Burnaby around the same time. Maybe they had travelled together. Further more most ducks and geese are powerful fliers. For example the Brant goose flies almost 5,000 km non-stop on its return from the Arctic to Baja, California. In reality, the flight from Russia is really quite easy in terms of flight distances if you island hop across the Aleutians to Alaska.
Meanwhile, the Mandarin was completely oblivious of any questions about its origin. It had found paradise in a peaceful, idyllic tree-lined pond with stunning views of snow-capped Mt. Arrowsmith in the background. But more importantly, it had found true love. It was love at first flight when it arrived at Morningstar and discovered a charming, unattached female Wood Duck. The attraction was mutual, and they spent all their time together swimming, foraging for food, and basking in the sun. Eventually, like most creatures in the spring the hormones kicked in, and they decided to try to raise a family. However, as of the end of June no Mandarwood ducklings were positively confirmed. it was photographed in close proximity to a female Wood Duck and her brood, but it was also photographed with a lone female later in the day.
Is the Mandarin story over or will it continue? Mandarin ducks are known for their fidelity and are supposed to mate for life. Does that apply to mixed marriages as well? Time will tell. The Central Park Mandarin disappeared after several days, but the Burnaby duck has been around for a year. What are the odds that the Morningstar Mandarin is still around?
The Mandarin was first reported in late March. I was alerted to its presence by owl photographer, Steve Large. Steve was concerned that it may have escaped from a hobby farm in Coombs where I took him to our first Mandarin. A call to the farm confirmed that their 3 pairs were safely confined in their pens.
Among the many unique features of the Mandarin is the light brown sail feathers above its rump. I'm not sure whether they are decorative or functional or both.
Photographing the Mandarin was a challenge. It was always on the move, suitable vantage points were limited, and lighting conditions often difficult. In the end the best strategy was to pick a spot where the lighting was decent and then hope that the Mandarin cooperated. It took three visits to finally capture some decent images.
The Mandarin had discovered paradise at the Morningstar Pond and soon adapted to a life of leisure and relaxation at the country club pond. It was more peaceful than usual since the golf course was closed because of COVID 19 so there was no distraction from golfers and only a few photographers and local residents to contend with. However, big bonus was that it finally found true love. We all know how difficult it is to find your significant other, and that might have been part of the reason that the Mandarin was exploring the world.
The Mandarin was very protective and always close to its mate. If any of the other Wood Ducks got too close, the Mandarin would aggressively chase them away.
According to some people Mandarins and Wood Ducks are incapable of producing offspring while others contend that offspring can be produced but the hybrids are sterile. Regardless of the science and controversy, the Mandarin and Woodie decided to try to raise a family. When the hormones were flowing and the time was right the Woodie invited the Mandarin to make love.
In typical duck fashion the Mandarin mounted the Woodie, and it would be up to nature to see if the mating was successful.
The Mandarin and Woodie didn't spend all their time at Morningstar. They also had other ponds that they visited. In fact, someone sent me a photo of the pair in their backyard pond. As well, since there didn't seem to be any suitable nesting cavities or available nest boxes around Morningstar, the pair had to find suitable accommodation elsewhere.
Whenever the pair got a chance they loved to get out of the water to dry off and preen. One day my wife spotted the pair on a log at the south end of the pond. We carefully snuck around the trees to find a vantage point close to the ducks. Fortunately, the ducks did not detect our presence, and we were able to take many full-frame photos while they preened and relaxed.
The last time I saw the Mandarin was May 19. It was with its mate and no ducklings. There was another Wood Duck nearby with six ducklings. Perhaps the mating of the Mandarin and Woodie was unsuccessful.
I haven't counted the number of times I visited the Mandarin. I know it was many, and I thoroughly enjoyed each visit even if no decent photos were taken. The Mandarin made the COVID 19 spring extra special for me and provided me with many hours of photography and enjoyment, but it wasn't the only duck news for the spring which I will explain later.
Morningstar ponds have been my favorite Yellow-rumped Warbler site for many years, and this year was no exception. In fact, there seemed to be more warblers than usual. Although I was mainly there to visit the Mandarin, it was always fun to take some warbler shots while the Mandarin was not available.
At first most of the warblers were of the Audubon variety. They are distinguished by the yellow plumage on the throat.
After the main wave of Audubons passed they were replaced by the Myrtles with their white throat feathers.
Late April and early May is the general window for shorebird migration. It isn't a major event on the east side of the island like it is on the west coast, but that makes it even more special when we do see a few shorebirds. It was actually an exceptional spring with several less common shorebirds sighted and photographed by various birders. Two that I regret not seeing were the Red Knot at Oyster Bay and the American Avocet in Courtenay, but thanks to an alert from Mark Wynjja I was able to enjoy a very special shorebird at San Malo mudflats.
On April 22 I received a phone call from Mark. He had just seen a Black-necked Stilt at San Malo. It had been many years since I had seen any stilts on the island. I didn't hesitate. Fifteen minutes later I was walking down the trail at San Malo towards the viewing tower. Half way down the trail I spotted the stilt crossing from the west side of the mudflats towards the trail and heading towards me. I focused and took intermittent shots as it got closer.
Unfortunately, as the stilt was getting almost in decent range a pair of walkers also approached. I held my breath hoping the walkers would see what I was doing and have the courtesy to stop, but they were unconcerned or oblivious despite seeing the camera pointing in their direction.
Before the stilt was in decent range, it flushed and so was my chance for better photos. Although these photos appear reasonable on the screen, they are considerable crops and not useful for any enlargements. However, I was excited to have seen the stilt and am grateful for Mark's call.
The next day I just happened to be at French Creek during low tide and noticed a group of shorebirds on the west side of the creek. They were migrating Dunlin, and many were in breeding plumage. I took this shot from the parking lot before heading for the other side of the creek.
As I approached the flock of foraging Dunlin they flew about thirty meters down the creek. I had to decide whether to stalk them or just stay put. I decided on the latter, and sure enough, the flock gradually worked its way back to me allowing for close-up shots. I waited patiently until one with almost full breeding plumage came into range. It is always amazing to see the transformation from the plain grayish-brown winter plumage to the bright rufous and black alternate plumage.
A lone Least Sandpiper accompanied the flock of Dunlins, but it wasn't entirely welcome. Anytime it came near to a Dunlin it was unceremoniously chased away.
Black Turnstones were also part of the shorebird flock. The white markings on their head were the only distinctive markings for their breeding plumage.
A few days later ((Apr. 29) I spotted a pair of Greater Yellowlegs on the western side of French Creek. I drove around to the creek access between the houses and located the pair of yellowlegs. They kept their distance but allowed for a couple of decent shots.
After giving up on the yellowlegs I l spotted a trio of Western Sandpipers much closer than the yellowlegs. I waited patiently for one of them to move into position for a side view. The chevrons on the underside and rufous colour on the scapulars and head indicated that it was in partial breeding plumage.
I was passing by Oyster Bay on May 16 shortly after the Red Knot was sighted. It was raining and low tide which were two indicators not to stop, but since I was there, why not? Scanning the whole expanse of the muddy bay I managed to locate two Long-billed Dowitchers and one Pectoral Sandpiper.
The Pectoral didn't mind my presence but gave me a funny look.
Coinciding with the shorebird migration was the moulting of the Bonaparte's Gulls into their black-headed breeding plumage.
Within days the Bonies would be on their migration to northeast BC and as far north as Alaska.
April is also the time for the grebes to moult into their fashionable breeding plumage. The flashiest is always the Horned Grebe. They migrate east and north for their breeding season.
The Red-necked Grebe is also very attractive. They also migrate north and east.
The transformation of the Common Loon from its drab black and white winter plumage to its stylish breeding plumage is always a spring spectacle that I enjoy. We are fortunate that usually one or two hang out in the French Creek marina for the winter. That gives us access to some close proximity photograhy.
Of course, it's always more interesting if the loon has a fish in its bill. Notice how low the loon is in the water. This is typical except when it is preening itself.
Like the Bald Eagles I often take the Pelagic Cormorants for granted. But, they are part of our avian environment and also deserve at least some occasional attention from the photogs.
Even without the presence of the Mandarin, it was an especially ducky spring with some unusual happenings, and none of it had anything to do with COVID 19.
There was nothing unusual about the Harllequins. As usual they were among the last ducks to migrate. In fact, I believe some of the non-breeding ducks stay around for the summer, especially around Hornby Island.
I know some of the Harlequins migrate to east of the Rockies because I had a band return 2 years ago from Rocky Mountain House.
The first unusual duck story was the late, late, late migration of several Long-tailed Ducks from Deep Bay. Typically the Long-taileds joing the tens of thousands of other ducks feasting on the herring spawn and larvae in March and maybe early April. After that they are usually on their way north to their breeding grounds as far as the Arctic coast.
I was pleasantly surprised to see them hanging out at Deep Bay until late April. The last day I saw them was April 27 which was at least 2 weeks later than normal. My theory is that the smaller than normal herring returns forced the ducks to stay longer acquire sufficient energy reserves for their lengthy migration.
How many ducklings can a Mallard have? Apparently a Mallard hen can lay from 8 to 13 eggs in a clutch. Ten ducklings isn't too unusual, but it would be unusual for all ten to survive. Mallard ducklings are notorious for straying off on their own and are subject to constant predation.
The second unusual duck story is the abundance of migrating ducks stopping in our area. In particular there seemed to be more Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal than ever. Many were seen at the Cumberland sewage ponds, Morningstar ponds, Oyster Bay, and Nanaimo estuary. I can't say that there were more Northern Shovelers than usual, but as usual there weren't uncommon. I saw a group of six at Morningstar on May 9 in the company of a pair of Blue-wingrd Teals.
Wood Ducks seemed more abundant than usual at Morningstar pond this year. One evening I counted 14 males and 7 females.
During the day there would only be a couple of Wood Ducks at the pond. They must fly in from all the local ponds like Hamilton Marsh. One evening I saw about a dozen grazing on the golf course so maybe that's the attraction.
One of the more scarce migrating ducks in our area is the Redhead. I think there were only two reported in our area this year. I know they breed in the Okanagan valley so maybe that's where they were headed.
One of my golfing buddies (and a naturalist) alerted me to the presence of a Redhead at Fairwinds. I saw it on April 6 and 8. It stayed around for about 4 days with a pair of Ring-necked Ducks before moving on.
Common Mergansers breed locally so they aren't in a hurry to go anywhere. It's hard to imagine that such a large duck is a cavity nester. My neighbour used to haul gravel for the logging roads, and one day he came across a group of loggers standing around a snag they had just fallen. They were all shocked to find that they had just killed a merganser family.
It was almost June before this pair of Ring-necked ducks left Morningstar Pond for their breeding season. There is a possible breeding record for Vancouver Island so maybe they didn't have far to go.
One of the most elusive photo subjects for me was the Cinnamon Teal. Many were reported but none were present when I arrived. My luck finally changed on May 15. On a whim I decided to visit Morningstar. Instead of my usual counterclockwise route I headed clockwise. When i reached the trail between the two ponds a glimpse of cinnamon caught my eye near the far end of the trail. I held my ground and waited. Unfortunately, there were two problems. The tall grass was a perfect blind for me, but it also obscured the view of the ducks. The second was the lighting. I was looking towards the sun. The good news was proximity. I had full-frame looks at the duck when it arrived, but it was impossible to get a clean shot. I had a choice of grass obscuring the front end or the back end. Of course, the front end is the money shot so you'll notice that the back end is fuzzy from the grass.
The big surprise was that the Cinnamon was accompanied by a female and a male Blue-winged Teal. I'm not sure who the female belonged to because both species are similar for the females. In any case, I also got full frame shots of the Blue-winged, but that was directly into the sun causing a whole lot of underexposure.
Two other strangers in the pond were a pair of Gadwall. A few Gadwall winter in the area but they are generally uncommon in our region.
Who's the male parent? On May 19 an acquaintance spotted the Mandarin close to a female Wood Duck with its brood. Could the Mandarin be one of the parents? Two factors seemed to indicate it wasn't. First, it is unusual for the male to have anything to do with raising the brood. In fact, I saw a female putting the chase on a male that got too close. The second factor was that later that day photographed the Mandarin with another female Wood Duck that had no brood. However, all the evidence for and against is circumstantial, and the only proof would be an actual hybrid.
Just to reinforce the notion that it was a very unusual spring for migrating ducks, another group of Blue-winged and a single Cinnamon stopped at San Malo on May 23, and there were still reports from other areas. I don't think anyone knows exactly why it was such a busy and late spring for the ducks, but it certainly provided a lot of fun for the birders and photographers.
My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)
Beginner's guide to common VANCOUVER ISLAND BIRDS (Vol. 4) is now available. Colour photos and descriptions of over 230 birds regularly seen on Vancouver Island.
LIMITED TIME INTERNET PRICE $25 plus gst & shipping if required. Price available until Sept. 30, 2020.
Contact admin AT vancouverislandbirds DOT com for pickup at Nanoose Bay. Group orders of 10 or more books will be delivered free of charge to most Vancouver Island locations.