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Rare birds pour into Piedmont for visit

Last week I wrote about the unusual waterfowl being pushed down into the Southeast by brutal cold up north. I mentioned that there had not been as many reports of scoters as other ducks. Well, in the space of a week that has changed. White-winged scoters, generally regarded as the rarest of the three scoter species, have poured into the Piedmont.

Let me give some perspective. In 40 years of birding in Mecklenburg County, I had seen one white-winged scoter before this winter. Last Sunday I followed up on a report from Mountain Island Lake and saw 14. That’s not an isolated case. It seems every large reservoir in the Piedmont and foothills, and maybe the state, is harboring white-winged scoters now. Dozens of birders are enjoying the show, glad not to have to brave cold, windy coastal conditions that can hamper ocean watching.

Scoters are lumped into a group of waterfowl known as sea ducks. They are most easily seen in coastal waters, flying just offshore on days of general bird movement. They may also congregate around structures such as jetties, where they can scrape shellfish off the rocks. It can be challenging to get a good look under those conditions, and often the white-winged scoter is identified only by a white wing patch on an otherwise dark bird flying in the distance. To be able to see them inland on a calm body of water is a real treat.

If the birds hang around, and of this writing they are still present, they can be easily seen from the Buzzard Rock Trail or the north canoe access area at Latta Plantation Nature Preserve. The scoters are mixed in with a couple of large rafts of greater and lesser scaup, and are easily distinguishable from those. Look for dark ducks that are large and heavy and show a white patch or streak on the folded wing. Bring your binoculars. Even if the scoters have moved on, the potential exists to see other nice ducks, bald eagles and maybe a river otter. The walk to the Buzzard Rock overlook is short and pleasant, and the view is great.