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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Pochard and Picnic Tables in Patagonia

The Pochard that started it all!

It all started on New Year’s day with two of Vermont’s finest birders.  “I think I’ve got a Redhead,” said Ian Worley to Ron Payne.  They had been examining a large flock of waterfowl at the Champlain Bridge at Crown Point.  It looked a little off, but with no other look-alikes in their field guide, they decided the duck they saw was in fact a Redhead.  Not until a picture was posted on the web did they discover that this bird was actually a European duck called a Common Pochard.

After its discovery was made public, three things happened.  The first was that birders flocked to the Champlain Bridge from all over New England (and beyond!)  Visitors from as far away as West Virginia and North Carolina made the trip to Vermont to see the Pochard.  The volume of visitors was so high that the state of Vermont decided to re-open D.A.R. State Park (typically closed in winter) to accommodate the influx of birders.

A group of birders from throughout the northeast
viewing the Common Pochard from Port Henry, NY.
The next thing to happen was the “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.”  This term was coined in 1971 after a group of birders passing though Patagonia, AZ discovered the first Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in U.S. history at a small rest stop off RT-82.  The slew of birders that followed in their wake to see the gnatcatcher ended up discovering the first U.S. record of Yellow Grosbeak at the same rest stop!  Hence, the effect was born.  Rare birds attract good birders who discover more rare birds.  This phenomenon took place in Vermont, with Pochard-searchers recording many more rarities at the Champlain Bridge, such as Canvasback, Iceland Gull, Barrow’s X Common Goldeneye hybrid, and more.

The final thing to happen was a great debate.  As the Pochard lifted its leg out of the water to take flight, someone noticed a metal band around its leg.  This band could have been placed by a researcher in Europe, but it could have also been placed by the owner of domestic waterfowl.  With the discovery of the band, the bird’s origin was put into question.  Was this a wild bird, the first ever recorded in the eastern US? Or was this an escapee from a backyard in upstate New York?  Whatever the bird’s origin, it has put Vermont ‘on the map’ for birders throughout the Northeast and many continue to make the trip to the Champlain Bridge to see the Pochard and other waterfowl.

Text and photos by Larry Clarfeld
For an account of the original discovery of the Pochard, visit Otter Creek Audubon Society.

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