A duck with a punk look showed up in Duluth about a week ago.
It was a Tufted Duck, a rare visitor in this part of the world. The bird is known by a crest of feathers hanging down the back of its head. It’s the Eurasian counterpart of our Ring-necked duck.
Birders have been making the trip north to see it. It’s often swimming in the Duluth ship canal.
I didn’t go. I’ve seen that species twice, once on Attu, at the far end of Alaska’s Aleutian island chain, and again at a golf course in Scottsdale, Arizona. (How strange is that?)
In 1996 my friend Mike and I went to Alaska to see birds. Highlight of the trip was a planned one-week visit to Attu in late May. It normally was a two-week trip costing $5,000.
We signed on for a one-week special, $2,000 plus a half-day of work each day. We were to help clean and prep the place for the big spenders. We had half days to bird.
Attu once had a Coast Guard station that maintained air traffic signals (it eventually was decommissioned, replaced by high-tech). There was a new station when we were there, shiny and bright. The old station was mostly decaying cement. Guess where birders bunked.
Water dripped from cement stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Water puddled on the cement floor. The cavernous cement room in which we — about two dozen of us — slept was an echo chamber. The snoring was bad.
Birders came to Attu not for comfort and amenities, however, but to see Eurasian birds pushed off migration routes by strong winds blowing west to east. The wind, a plus bird-wise, made it very cold.
In two weeks, birders might see as many as 20 new species, species for North American life lists, species unlikely to be seen elsewhere on the continent.
Otherwise, why spend $5,000 to be wet and cold?
We would fly to Attu from Anchorage. Bad weather grounded us for the first two days. The next day the plane needed repair. Then two more days of bad weather. Five days gone, two to go.
The trip organizer offered us a refund of $1,000 to hang it up. Mike and I stayed. We were unlikely to ever make the trip again, price aside. What the heck.
I saw the duck and a shorebird, a Ruff. The Ruff is sometimes seen here, by the way. But seeing a Ruff here is not nearly as much fun.
You also can’t count on seeing a Eurasian duck on an Arizona golf course.
So, you take your chances with weather and airplanes, and make the trip — two birds or two days, consider as you will, it was a thousand bucks each in either case.
I was told by a friend who stayed behind that before our out-bound plane was out of sight a Spotted Woodpecker was seen just off the runway. It would have been a third lifer for me.
Reducing the cost per bird to $666.66.