What the (Tufted) duck??

The Australian birding scene was in a flutter in early January 2019 when a Tufted Duck, the first for Australia, was identified at one of the most heavily birded locations in the country: the Western Treatment Plant in Victoria.

I followed this story closely on Facebook as it evolved and from what I gather, it was an American birder (who was familiar with the species) who first sighted and identified the bird. I asked him online how he found the duck in one of many ponds that isn’t usually scrutinised by birders, and he explained that he had driven down a track without realising it was a dead-end, and in as much as he was there, decided to scan the birds! If you’ve ever scanned hundreds of birds, in choppy water, with a spotting scope, from more than 200m away (I measured it!), then you can appreciate how phenomenal the discovery was.

Furthermore, this was perhaps one of only a handful of records in the Southern Hemisphere for a bird that has a habit range of “northern Eurasia”, and is the most common diving duck in the UK. Here’s a great blog post with more details on its range and rarity in this part of the world: http://www.bigdipbirding.com/if-it-looks-like-a-duck.html

The bird was first identified on the afternoon of Thursday 3 January 2019, and by sunset, dozens of birders had made the pilgrimage to the Western Treatment Plant. Friday’s temperatures were forecast to hit 43C and a ‘total fire ban’ was declared for the state, meaning that the Plant was closed, and the Australian birding community would have to wait with bated breath for 36hrs in the hope that ‘Tuffy’ decided to stick around.

Like hundreds of other birders, we decided to visit on Saturday after a few other (relatively quiet, albeit stunning) birding stops at Eynesbury, Brisbane Ranges, You Yangs Drysdale Road, and Western Plantations.

Eynesbury Lake – Freckled Ducks are almost guaranteed here
Driving down from Brisbane Ranges – some of the roads are 4WD-only

Facebook posts started flooding in on Saturday morning that the duck was still at the Plant, flying back and forth between Ponds 1 and 2 at ‘T-Section’. We were excited that in a few short hours we too would see this mega rarity.

So imagine our shock, disbelief, and utter horror, when we arrived in the afternoon and were told that a massive flock of birds, including the Tufted Duck, had been flushed just 10mins prior, and the bird could not be relocated! And all because a selfish birder walked into the grass to get a better photo, flushing the birds, leaving dozens of birders fuming, and another dozen recently arrived birders (some from out-of-state) disappointed with missing the bird and perhaps never seeing it again!

Along with another dozen birders, we carefully scanned the hundreds of ducks for more than 2hrs, to no avail, and left the Plant dejected. Astoundingly, a birder posted on Facebook at 8:30pm that the bird was back in Pond 1, so we were determined to mount a repeat visit in the coming days.

Scanning Pond 2 for Tuffy

The stars aligned a few days later with cool, dry weather forecast and a week’s worth of data of the bird’s behaviour: it moved from Pond 1 to Pond 2, and if flushed, it flew to the ‘duck pond’ at Western Lagoons. Armed with this information, we felt confident that we had a fighting chance of eventually seeing it.

When we arrived at 10am, I felt butterflies in my stomach on seeing two birders with spotting scopes trained on Pond 1, as I was sure they had eyes on it. To my disappointment, they said it was just there, but they lost sight of it!

Nonetheless, I set up my spotting scope and began scanning the lake methodically. Within two minutes I had eyes on a smallish brown bird at the furthest end of the pond, in amongst hundreds of other birds, about the size of a Hardhead, with yellowish eyes, with white under its wings, and a ‘rat tail’ on its head: the Tufted Duck! I almost cried in elation.

I took a few ‘phone-scoped’ photos, and alerted the other birders to its location – there’s a special thrill in being the first in the group to spot the target bird for once!

Scanning Pond 1 for Tuffy
Unmistakable white feathers of a phone-scoped Tufted Duck
Uncropped at 600mm zoom – the duck is usually very far away
A crop of the above photo

We spent half an hour viewing and photographing the very distant bird, and chatting with the half-dozen birders, some from out of state, others with kids no more than five years old, united in admiring the most photographed bird in Australia. (Oh, and on the drive out, we spotted another lifer and bogey bird – three Black-tailed Godwits – capping off one of our most exhilarating twitches yet.)

Black-tailed Godwits

At the time of publishing this blog post on 18 January 2019, some two weeks after the bird was first seen, ‘Tuffy’ has been seen by more than 700 birders, albeit not for about three days. He has also become a national celebrity, appearing on the news and in many local newspapers, casting a positive light on birds and Melbourne Water, and hopefully inspiring others to take up the most rewarding hobby of birdwatching.

Here are a few links to video newstories:

Here are some links to online news articles:

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