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Spotting a rare Tufted Duck in Cape May

spark Birding's newest member shares a story

A newcomer to Spark Birding, Cameron Cox is not new to birdwatching. Sparked by seeing a Prothonotary Warbler as a teenager (see Spark Bird story), he went on to spend his early 20s as a traveling as a "bird bum" to all corners of North America, from southern Mexico to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. He became a product specialist for Leica Sport Optics and co-authored the Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching, a landmark guide that teaches birders how to effectively identify eastern waterbirds in flight using a method of identification that emphasizes birds’ structure, behavior, and overall color.


Cape May National Wildlife Refuge

Cape May Tufted Duck

By Cameron Cox

Like many fortuitous occurrences, the genesis of finding the Tufted Duck started as a conversation over beers. In the early spring of 2017 I was searching for place in Cape May County to find a Canvasback, so I asked local luminaries, Glen Davis and Sam Galick, where they would look for one.

They told me about their secret pond for finding scarce ducks during the World Series of Birding. It happened that I was nearby the pond the following day and decided to check it out. Arriving at the pond I was immediately gratified to see a pair of Blue-winged Teal, my first of the year. I scanned the pond but no Canvasback. There were, however, a large number of Ring-necked Ducks. I enjoy looking at Ring-necked Ducks; they are beautiful and interesting ducks, so I tend to spend time with flocks of Ring-necks fully soaking them in.

I was scanning through the entire flock for a third time when a similar but clearly different duck suddenly surfaced right in my scope view. It had entirely white flanks and as it shook its head and settled into a resting pose it exposed a shaggy black crest on the back of the head that I already knew would be there. A male Tufted Duck! This native of Europe and Asia is rare anywhere in the Lower 48. I fumbled to get my phone out and alert the local birding community. Shortly more birders arrived to enjoy the bird with me, then it stayed several more days attracting birders from all over New Jersey. An amusing irony is that my wife and I had traveled all the way to Vermont the week before so she could see her first Tufted Duck only to have one pop up just a few miles from our home.

The Tufted Duck is a rare sighting in North America

Cameron Cox with Caddy

Finding a really rare bird always provides a jolt of adrenaline but this Tufted Duck was particularly exciting as it was a first for Cape May County. Cape May is steeped in a long ornithological history with more skilled birders searching its every beach, pond, and field than just about anywhere in North America so finding a first there is particularly satisfying. While finding rare birds is exciting, the point here is that looking at common birds is rewarding. I’ve spent many hours looking at Ring-necked Ducks, once I was rewarded by finding a Tufted Duck, the rest of those hours were rewarded with watching Ring-necked Ducks go about their lives. ###


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