*Apologies for the annoying formatting of this post--can't seem to fix it!*
On the evening of March 7th I found a distinctly 'different' duck feeding in a flooded field just south of Nanaimo. Soon the report of 'Baikal Teal' went out and the birders flocked in. Upon closer inspection this bird now appears to be a good match for:
Baikal Teal x Northern Pintail hybrid
So why is the bird suspected of being a hybrid and why were the bird's abnormalities not picked up earlier? I will start with the observable attributes of the bird itself and why they are suggestive of a Baikal x Northern Pintail hybrid, then reflect on the second question, as I think it provides an interesting case-study of the psychological dynamics of 'vagrant-seeking' and 'vagrant-chasing' when it comes to the world of birding.
|This is a photo from the morning of March 8th of the Nanaimo bird at a distance of roughly 250m in steady drizzle (with Mew Gulls behind). Note the thick line that divides the cream-coloured patches on the face and the extensive dark colouration on the chin. The extensiveness of dark colouration is atypical of pure Baikal Teal. Because of the low resolution, some of the finer aspects of the bird's plumage (e.g. scapulars) are not easy to assess.|
(Photo: Daniel Donnecke)
Click HERE for photos of the bird swimming in brighter light (albeit distantly).
This bird has an orangey-buff breast with black centers to most of the feathers, a vertical white bar to the front flanks, and a parallel white stripe bordering the black undertail coverts. These are both typical of pure Baikal Teal. The bird is distinctly larger than Green-winged Teal but smaller in girth to Northern Pintail and shorter-necked and tails.
In addition to the facial pattern, problematic features (atypical of pure Baikal) include a more pintail-esque head-shape including a longer-looking beak, and relatively longer inner rectricies. The combination of structural and plumage abnormalities logically lead to the possibility of a wild-born hybrid or some form of captive-bred creation.
American Wigeon hybrids (e.g. with Northern Pintail or Green-winged Teal) could potentially produce a similar face and flank pattern, but given that apparent abundance of Baikal-like features, it appears likely that this bird is Baikal x ________. The longer tail and head/neck shape/colouring point to Northern Pintail as a likely candidate. A few Google searches and voila--it appears both wild and escapee Baikal x pintail hybrids are not rare in parts of east Asia. Below are a couple examples of presumed "Pinteals"
|This bird lacks the vertical white bar in the front flanks but is otherwise very similar to the Nanaimo bird. |
Note the leg-bands--presumed escapee (Harteman Wildfowl)
|This photo from Japan shows another presumed Baikal x Pintail cross. Again, this bird lacks the vertical white bar, has a paler chest, and is perhaps longer-tailed than the Nanaimo bird, but shows a similar facial pattern.|
(Photo: Shuichi Haupt)
Note on the external features and sexual behaviour of a wild hybrid Baikal Teal * Northern Pintail found at Hyo-ko Watefowl Park, Niigata, Japan.
'Provenance' is another interesting question--is this bird wild or an escapee? On the first evening I was able to see the birds legs as it walked around an area of short grass, and I noted no obvious bands. We will probably never know for sure but given the regular occurrence of presumed wild hybrids in east Asia and the bird's association with a wild mixed-flock of dabbling ducks, I would guess this is a naturally-occurring hybrid.
So why was this bird reported as a "Baikal Teal?"
After seeing the photos of the Nanaimo bird, some of you may be think---Dang Russ, it's so obviously a hybrid; how did you screw that up?
Believe me, I have mulled that question over in my head for a few days now and thought I would share my experience of this bird as a cautionary tale for birders of all levels of experience and expertise. As David Sibley and others have noted in the past, it is easy for bias to creep into bird identification when a rare bird or lifer is on the line. Many of us head out in the field hoping that today is the day we find the "mega"--that bird that we never expected. This unpredictability is one of the fundamental pleasures for birders, whether it's a bird that is out of season, unusual in a given habitat, or from a different continent, we get out there because we're not sure what might pop up onto that branch just up ahead. If you are lucky enough to find a rare bird on your own, it may be a bird that you are familiar with but is rare for that area. On the other hand, it may be a bird you've never seen before and this can sometimes cause problems. Case in point...
1. I have never seen a Baikal Teal before: As I scanned a large dabbler flock feeding in a flooded field south of Nanaimo, BC, a duck with a striking facial pattern came into view. Holy shit! I exclaimed. I knew right away that this bird had a similar-looking face to Baikal Teal--a bird I had never seen in the field before, but one that I have come across in fieldguides etc. Although I had seen illustrations and photos in the past, I was not familiar enough with the species to know that this bird's facial pattern was in fact atypical. I noted the longish tail and head/neck shape that seemed unusual for a "teal" and was also concerned about the vertical white bar on the front flanks--I know GW Teals have this, I did not know if Baikals did. So right off the bat I thought this bird could be a hybrid. I called my Dad who brought up some images online and I talked him through the fieldmarks I was looking at. My biggest mistake was saying "it has the classic Baikal face" then concentrating more the the body plumage and relative size. When all of these subjective features (including the white stripes on the face) checked out as a match for pure Baikal Teal (I chalked the longish tail up to it being naturally longer and larger than Green-winged Teal, and the fact that I had "never seen a Baikal before so maybe that's what the tail is supposed to look like"), it was like a switch was pulled in my brain. This was a massive rarity and there was still light left! I needed to call as many people as I could!
2. I didn't have a field guide: All I had was the Sibley App, but there is no Baikal in there, and my phone can access Google images. Therefore I had nothing to compare what I was seeing in the field to what it was actually supposed to look like.
3. I didn't make a field sketch/Usable photographs were not achieved on the first day: Because of the distance to the bird and low-light conditions, usable digi-scope shots were not achieved. In place of that, I should have made a detailed field sketch as I could see the bird fairly well in the scope. I did record some voice notes on the fieldmarks, but these can be subjective and again--"classic Baikal face" proved to be a fatal assumption.
5. I became more concerned with getting the word out than diligently studying Baikal Teal and other hybrid possibilities online: When I got home that night, almost all of my energy went into updating the BC Rare Bird Alert and making detailed directions to the site and possible alternate sites to check. These are important tasks but I really should have been studying online photos as well as hybrid possibilities carefully. I did check out some images briefly and noted that my bird's facial pattern seemed to include a thicker black vertical line, but without sketches or photos to physically compare the two, I assumed it must be close enough given that the rest of the bird looked pretty much identical to male Baikal.
6. Until someone voiced their concerns online in the middle of Day 2, no one questioned the ID: Five birders saw the teal on the first night, then close to fifteen more saw it well the next morning, before the flock was disturbed by some nearby hunters. Among the crowd were some of BC's most experienced birders. As I approached the group everyone was all smiles and high-fives etc were exchanged. Having their approval was a big relief and this is where I made the last major mistake. Now that I had taken some time to look at Baikal Teal images online and in field-guides, I should study this bird again and see if it matched up--I even had a field guide along this time. Instead I was satisfied to briefly check out the bird a few times and chat up some of the friendly faces I hadn't seen in a while. Fortunately two people managed distant photos before the bird flew, and the always cool and collected Nathan Hentze had noticed some disturbing features to this bird. With Jeremy Gatten's photos, he compared the Nanaimo bird to online images and noted that this bird bore a striking resemblance to presumed pintail hybrids.
When Jeremy sent his photos to me it felt like a truck hit me. After previously looking up various photos online it was like my image of the Nanaimo bird had morphed into a classic Baikal Teal. I almost wondered if the "two bird theory" was at play... but then I thought back to those first 30 minutes when it was just the bird, my scope, and I. The long tail, facial pattern, the weird head-shape for a teal. Things I had assumed were possible classic Baikal traits out of ignorance, were clearly atypical upon viewing online images.
As for the other birders that thought they had a great bird on their lifelists, I obviously can't blame them. This is an unfamiliar bird to North Americans, I had convinced myself, they trusted me, and who doesn't love a mega-rarity?
Add this duck to the problematic spizella sparrow I found a week earlier, and this has been quite the humbling and educational end to winter for me. While many reading this may not have made the same mistakes I made if put in a similar situation, I hope this story can be used as a reminder to birders of all levels of experience---Be aware of your own bias and limitations when attempting to identify an unfamiliar bird, and be equally critical (in a constructive manner) with the assumptions of others.
For another perspective, check out Chris Siddle's latest blog post.