Common Pochard taken Jan. 2

Common Pochard taken Jan. 2

It all began with a quick statement from my friend Ian Worley, “I think I’ve got a Redhead.” I quickly found the bird through my scope as its rufous head made it very obvious among the dark-headed Scaup flock. And after initial hesitation, I confirmed his identification, “yes, it’s a Redhead.” But we had made the wrong call and and we later learned that what we thought was a Redhead was actually a Common Pocard. A European cousin of the Redhead never before recorded in Vermont, New England, or the eastern United States for that matter.

We had both individually come to the Champlain Bridge  in Addison for some New Year’s Day birding. The main goal, besides getting a good start on a new personal year list, was a failed attempt to re-find a Harlequin Duck that been seen there by Ian the day before. I had already had a good morning before Ian arrived, finding a life bird Glaucous Gull, and seeing two Red Foxes come out onto the ice trying to catch one of the Common Mergansers flocked there. Ian was excited to hear about the gull, which he later also found, as that would be a life bird for him as well, but before he went off looking for that, we decided to scan the nearby flock of Lesser and Greater Scaup for the Harlequin or anything else that might be with them. It was during this time that Ian spotted the “Redhead.” My first thought on seeing the bird was to wonder whether or not it was a Canvasback, because the head shape did not look right for a Redhead, but the plumage and head shape didn’t add up for a Canvasback. Ian also noted its odd head shape but all thoughts of this bird went right out of our heads when I spotted another European vagrant, a Tufted Duck in the flock. This was the second time I had ever seen a Tufted Duck and it was a life bird for Ian. I started taking pictures of that bird by holding my point-and-shoot camera up to my scope. Not the best method for pretty pictures, but often good enough for documenting a rare species.  While doing this, the “Redhead” happened to come into view, so I took a picture of it too as an afterthought.

So after all that, both Ian and I felt like we’d had an excellent morning of birding, one life bird and a rarity for me and two life birds for him. When I got home I submitted my checklist for the day to eBird and embedded my pictures into it. I then wrote a message to the VTBIRD listserv to inform people of the Tufted Duck and Glaucous Gull at the bridge. And that’s when things got exciting. About an hour after my post, Alan Strong posted a message he had revived from Jeremiah Trimble from Massachusetts who had seen my “Redhead” picture and recognized it as a Common Pochard. My initial reaction to this was to ask, what the heck is a Common Pochard?

Being a very local birder, my knowledge of species is limited mostly North American birds, and any vagrant species I am familiar with are ones with a precedent for showing up in the U.S. This being an unprecedented species for the area, with only a few reports from Alaska, California and Quebec, this was the first time I had ever heard of it. And Ian had a similar lack of knowledge of the species too. Though a Common Pochard is superficially similar to a Redhead, once you know the details, the difference between them is plain to see. The Common Pochard has a peaked head and triangular black bill with a white “saddle” on the upper side. The Redhead has a rounded head, a blue Scaup-like bill with a black tip, and a golden-yellow eye. But without foreknowledge of the species, neither Ian or I could have thought to have looked for those defining marks, and so we settled on the most similar bird we did know, the Redhead. The lesson I take away from this is that when one see’s something about a bird that seems odd, in this case the peaked head we noticed, one should take notice, document it, and investigate it further.

Well, needless to say, the news of the Pochard set off an immediate rush to the Champlain Bridge by local birders, who quickly re-found the bird and confirmed the ID. And the next day, dozens more from around the state and region, some from Upstate New York and Massachusetts came to view the Pochard. Ian and I headed back out there as well and joined the crowd too so we could say that we had seen the bird while we knew what it was we were looking at. Visibility was poor early on with sometimes heavy snow making it difficult to pick the Pochard out of the flock of Scaup, but later in the afternoon, the sun came out making for some absolutely stunning viewing. Also, despite the cold, it was enjoyable to share those views with such a great group of like-minded and knowledgeable bird enthusiasts.

– Ron Payne