Rara avis??

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

As Edith Andrews mentioned in her column a few weeks ago, we have had a rare bird on Nantucket. It is known as the Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera. Why is this a rare bird? Well, its normal range is from the Rocky Mountains west, and there have only been two records before this in Massachusetts. One of those records was May 11, 1978, at the southern tip of Monomoy Island, and the other, May 12, 1983, from the Vineyard. Significant to us is that neither of these records is from the fall season.

Reading about Cinnamon Teal in "Bent's Life Histories", we learn that if one of these birds wanders as far east as Wisconsin, it makes the news. I should explain to many of you that teal are actually small ducks. They are much sought after by hunters because they are considered good eating and their small size and erratic flight make them difficult targets and therefore -- good "sport".

There are two species of teal that are usually found here on Nantucket, the Green-winged Teal, and the Blue-winged Teal. Actually the female Blue-winged Teal and the female Cinnamon Teal are virtually indistinguishable. Those of you that know your Latin can see that the scientific name for the Cinnamon Teal, mentioned above, translates to "blue-winged duck". So there you go. No one ever said this was going to be an easy business.

The good news is that the drake Cinnamon Teal is one of the most recognizable of all birds. Cinnamon doesn't begin to describe the color when the sun hits this bird, more like a glowing mahogany would do it. In flight, you see a large, chalky blue patch on the forewing. This bird is hard to misidentify.

The other good news is that the bird we are seeing looks just like that. It is a fine-plumaged male. He is actually consorting with a female which may be another Cinnamon Teal, or perhaps, a Blue-winged. So, there is no question that we have had a definite Cinnamon Teal on Nantucket since the 24th of September and most recently seen the 25th of October in the Hummock Pond region.

Therefore we can add this bird as the third record for this species in the Massachusetts record book -- right? Well, maybe. The next question asked by ornithologists is -- "Did this bird get here under its own power, or has it escaped from captivity?" Unfortunately for us, there are enthusiasts around who raise waterfowl for their own enjoyment and sometimes they find their way to freedom. In preparing this article, I checked around Nantucket and at least one person raises teal -- and suddenly our case developed a big problem. He had a Cinnamon Teal and it has gotten away. So, most likely, his bird is the one we've been seeing.

We still may get a legitimate Cinnamon Teal someday, because they are strong fliers. This species was originally discovered down at the southern tip of South America in the early 1800's. For many years, it was listed as strictly a South American species -- unknown up here. It wasn't until 1849 that it was found in Louisiana, well out of its normal range. It is actually abundant west of the Rockies.

So there you have the status of Nantucket's 2003 Cinnamon Teal. But the story is not over yet. Since it has been around for over a month, it will probably continue, at least until the ponds freeze and finding food becomes difficult -- except for one little problem -- duck hunting season! The second half of our duck hunting season runs from November 21 to December 13. Our mahogany friend has survived the first half, but fewer hunters are out then. It would be perfectly legal for a licensed hunter to pick off our Cinnamon Teal and make a meal of him.

Far be it for us bird lovers to encourage someone to shoot a duck, but if someone does get this one, we would ask you a favor. Obviously you would check to see if he's wearing a band and the rules tell you how to report the number. Since the escaped bird was banded, this would confirm where this duck came from.

If it's found to be unbanded, then please bring the duck in to the Maria Mitchell Association so he can become part of Nantucket's ornithological collection. Since the other two records are sight records only, this would be the first specimen of this species for the State of Massachusetts.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444.