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She almost didn’t turn around.
But Rita Stima, a dedicated birdwatcher from Lebanon County, said something didn’t look quite right when it caught her eye as she drove through property owned by the Greater Lebanon Refuse Authority, just north of Cleona, on the morning of Dec. 19.
“I was rounding a curve and saw in the corner of my eye this white bird that was floating in the pond,” she recalled. She thought for a moment it might be a common merganser, a species of duck not at all unusual for the region.
Stima, a member of the Quittapahilla Audubon Society, had been birding all morning, she said — looking for a particular owl that returns each winter to the area — and she was tired. She had driven down Russell Road past the landfill to Tunnel Hill Road before she decided she had to go back and check what she saw.
She’s glad she did. She found an Iceland gull – a rare enough sighting for Lebanon County – but that wasn’t all.
“I zoomed in on it and realized it was not the usual sort of duck you’d see on the pond,” she said. She used her phone to do a little research and she “came up with a common shelduck.”
“I thought it has to be a mistake because this bird doesn’t belong in the United States,” she said.
So she started making calls. Her first call was to Jonathan Heller, another Lebanon County birder and a reviewer for eBird, a citizens science reporting system from Cornell University that gathers information on bird sightings internationally.
“I sent him two pictures,” she said. “I was almost embarrassed to ask him.”
But Heller positively identified both birds: the Iceland gull and, more importantly, the shelduck.
“It’s such an unusual bird,” Stima said. “If it’s a wild duck, this is really really very rare.”
So, what’s a shelduck?
A common shelduck, according to eBird.org, is a “distinctive, large, rather gooselike duck of coastal wetlands, tidal mudflats, and nearby grassy fields. Striking plumage often looks simply black-and-white; at close range, head is deep glossy green, broad breast band dark rusty. … Less numerous and more local inland at lakes and along rivers.”
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, an England-based birding group, the shelduck is “a big, colourful duck, bigger than a mallard but smaller than a goose. Both sexes have a dark green head and neck, a chestnut belly stripe and a red bill.” They typically eat “invertebrates, small shellfish and aquatic snails,” the RSPB website says, and they “are found mainly in coastal areas, though they can also be found around inland waters such as reservoirs and gravel workings.”
But, while this type of shelduck has the word “common” in its name, it’s certainly not from around here.
BeautyofBirds.com notes that shelducks “are widespread and common ducks found in Europe and Asia.” Birds-of-North-America.net adds that the shelduck is “a vagrant from Europe and western Asia. It is a rare visitor to North America, showing up on the eastern coast of the continent from time to time.”
The Birds of Iceland website also notes they are a “relatively new” breeding bird in Iceland as well. Iceland typically is as far west as you’ll see them.
Once news of Stima’s local find started to spread, folks in the birding world got excited. Not just in Lebanon County, or even south-central Pennsylvania … but all over the country.
And, if you’ll pardon the pun, bird enthusiasts started to flock to the Cleona area.
Cool! How did it get here?
No one knows for sure how the bird ended up in a Lebanon County landfill pond.
“It has not been confirmed that it’s from the UK,” Stima said. “The possibility exists that it’s an escaped captive — maybe someone was keeping exotic waterfowl. Or it could have come here from Iceland. … It really could go either way. It could be a wild vagrant bird that made its way over here. Or it could be an escaped captive. Its provenance is unknown at this point.”
After discovering the bird and beginning the process of alerting the birding community, Stima paid a visit to the landfill office. She has a waiver that allows her to watch birds there, she explained, but she correctly anticipated that a larger population of bird enthusiasts would descend on the region once word got out.
“I go birding out there quite a bit. I found a glaucous gull, which is also rare for this area, there the same week,” she said. “I know the people there, so I went in and told them they had a rare duck on their hands. They thought it was unusual, too. They first saw the duck on Dec. 5, and Cody Phillips, a grounds supervisor, got a picture on Dec. 6.”
The landfill’s management and employees have gone out of their way to facilitate the birdwatching experience, Stima said – even building a footbridge over a small stream so birdwatchers could more easily hike to the shelduck’s pond.
In fact, the Audubon Society has presented a certificate of appreciation to Robert “Skip” Garner, executive director of the landfill, and his staff for their accommodations during the bird’s visit. “He’s been marvelous,” Stima said, noting that most birders have taken precautions so they don’t interfere with landfill operations and also don’t disturb or stress out the shelduck.
On Dec. 20, the day after her discovery, Stima was joined at the landfill by Ross Gallardy, an internationally prominent birder from the Chester area, along with two birdwatchers from Lancaster County and another member of the Quittapahilla group. Garner made arrangements to take them around inside the landfill fence so they could find the rare duck again, take some pictures and observe its behavior.
After that, it was just a matter of time.
“The message got out real quickly in the birding world,” Stima said. “Birders from all over the country started showing up,” coming from as far afield as Florida, Arizona, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Illinois – many toting an array of cameras, tripods, binoculars and scopes. The Stoll brothers, a pair of lifelong birders from Tennessee, drove overnight to Pennsylvania and met with Stima at the site “at the height of the polar vortex” on Dec. 22-23.
“In birder terms, this is big stuff,” she said.
Will we ever know for sure if the duck is wild?
That’s the big question. Stima said she and other birders immediately started looking for clues.
For instance, she said, “the bird was very skittish and would flush very quickly – more quickly than the mallards and the Canada geese on the pond.” Those, she said, are likely characteristics of a wild bird, not domesticated livestock.
Gallardy told LebTown that he was very excited to learn of the shelduck’s presence in Lebanon County, although he has seen several of the species before during visits to Asia.
“It’s an interesting situation,” he said. Based on his observations, he added, “the bird is most likely a male, and it’s probably a second or third year bird.” That’s based on characteristics including a red knob on its bill that appears to be in the early stages of development, as well as the amount of white visible on its head and wings.
He also cited several indicators that help narrow down its provenance.
“For one thing, it’s not walking up to people and begging for bread,” he said.
He also noted that it doesn’t have bands on its legs, its wings aren’t clipped, and the hallux (hind toes) are intact – all of which further suggest a wild bird.
“I think it’s a wild bird,” Gallardy said. “We may never know for sure – it’s a personal judgment call – but it fits enough of the criteria for me to be considered a wild bird. … It checks most of the boxes for being wild.”
On the other hand, Stima said, the general consensus is that a wild bird will fly north as warmer weather approaches. If it’s still hanging around locally in May or June, she said, “people will start to get suspicious that it was a captive bird.”
Gallardy agreed. “If the bird is still there in July, the argument gets harder to make that it’s wild,” he said.
Meanwhile, Steven B. Feldstein, a research professor of meteorology at Penn State, heard about the shelduck and took an interest as well. Stima said he is trying to determine if the bird could have been blown off course during migration.
Although weather oscillation patterns in December seem unlikely to have carried the bird to the U.S. from its usual habitats in Europe or Iceland, Stima said Feldstein believes a weather system in mid-October over the mid-Atlantic region could have directed the shelduck to this area from Iceland by way of Nova Scotia.
But it’s still here for now, right?
Stima noted that there are 14 ponds on the landfill’s property. Although the shelduck’s preferred pond is visible from the road, particularly cold weather that freezes the surface can send the bird to another pond, further back inside the landfill property, that is aerated – that, Stima explained, means it doesn’t freeze over like the other ponds do in subfreezing weather.
As of this writing, the shelduck is still there, Stima said, and people are still coming to see it.
“If it turns out to be wild, it’s considered a mega rarity in the birding world,” she said. “It’s every birder’s dream to find a rare bird. … I stick to Lebanon County for almost all my birding. There’s something to be said for that, you get to know your own backyard very well. But I’ve never had a mega rare sighting like this. It just does not belong here.”
Eventually, she explained, the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology will review all records submitted on the discovery, “and with all the information that they have, they will decide whether to accept it as a wild bird.”
Some enthusiasts, she noted, are looking into the possibility of conducting a stable isotope analysis on a feather dropped by the shelduck to help establish its provenance more accurately.
A little more worrisome, she added, is the prospect of hunters taking an interest in the shelduck. Some people might see it more as a trophy, rather than a rare opportunity to see a rare waterfowl from across the Atlantic. (Potential poachers may however want to take note – the Lebanon County Police Combat Pistol Club is located next door to the landfill.)
Gallardy said it’s probably that sightings such as this will become more common in the future.
To date, he said, there have been only a dozen or so common shelduck sightings in the northeastern United States. Most of those sightings were in the last 10 years. Other rare species, such as barnacle geese and pink-footed geese, are also being seen more frequently in the U.S.
“I anticipate over the next decade we’ll have a number of common shelducks in North America,” he said. “I don’t think this will be the last one.”
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