By Ilana DeBare
Welcome back to the Lake Merritt Tufted Duck!
Once again, a Tufted Duck has arrived to winter among the scaup of Lake Merritt in Oakland. This is of note since Tufted Ducks aren’t native to California — they’re a Eurasian species that occasionally turns up here, presumably migrating south with other birds from Siberia.
Its arrival sparked an interesting dialogue earlier this week on the East Bay Birding email discussion group. People started trying to figure out how long there’s been a Tufted Duck wintering at Lake Merritt. We at GGAS were happy to spot it last January during our first-ever Kids’ Bird Count at Lake Merritt, but the record goes back much further.
Bob Power reported sighting the duck each year from 2006 through 2012; Glen Tepke said he had seen one in 2005. John Harris saw one in 1998. Dave Quady noted that the Oakland Christmas Bird Count turned up a Tufted Duck in 1994 and every year from 1997 through 2004 except for 2002.
Traveling even further back in time, John Sterling recounted seeing one in the 1970s — when he was too young to have a driver’s license, and had his mother drive him to the lake! And Joe Morlan weighed in with a string of sightings in 1976-8.
Mark Rauzon, who started the whole discussion with a sighting of the duck last week, summed it up this way:
A Tufted Duck has been reported 22 out of the last 36 years at Lake Merritt, Oakland. Mostly a single male was seen each winter from 1976-79, 1987, 1991, 1994, 1997-2001, and 2003-12. The same individual was likely reported in 1976-79, and again from 2003-12. And while they can live to be 45 years, it is likely that more than one individual male has been involved, as well as a few females. Many of us got it as a “lifer.” We’re lucky to live in an area where this Eurasian species winters.
This email chain was a wonderful illustration of the power of birders as a community — in this case, the power to pool observations and create a historical record that goes beyond any one person’s sightings.
For me, it’s also moving to consider that this could be the same male returning for several years in a row. Except for occasional banded birds, we don’t often get to know individual birds or their histories. Goldfinches may flock to our backyard feeder, but are they the same individuals this week as last week? or last year? It’s usually impossible to tell.
The likelihood that I saw this fellow last winter, and then he winged off to Siberia, and now he has returned…. well, it feels a little bit like an actual relationship. I feel weirdly flattered that he wasn’t just blown off course, and that he likes Oakland enough to return year after year.
This is not just “a” Tufted Duck, but “our” Tufted Duck.
Of course, he’s probably not the only one. The Oakland CBC recorded a male and a female bird in 2004, and Cin-Ty Lee, a visiting professor from Rice University, documented a male and a female last January. Females don’t have that same identifiable tuft and could more easily be mistaken for a female scaup. “I wonder how many female Tufted Ducks have been overlooked through the years,” Dave Quady wrote.
For many of us, Lake Merritt is the one chance that we’ll ever have to see a Tufted Duck. Want to add it to your life list? It’s easy to spot — often hanging out in a flock of scaup at the northeastern edge of the lake, near Lakeshore Avenue and the colonnade.
Or get some guidance from other GGAS birders during one of our terrific Lake Merritt field trips.
The next two Lake Merritt walks will be led by Ruth Tobey and Hilary Powers on Wednesday November 28 and Wednesday December 26 at 9:30 a.m. For where to meet and other details, see the Upcoming Field Trips section of our web site.