What the duck! West Coast waterfowl makes a rare visit to Sheepshead Bay

A male harlequin duck makes rare visit to Sheepshead Bay.
Photo by Charles Tang

He’s an odd duck! 

A species of duck native to the Pacific Northwest has been spotted bobbing in the waters off Sheepshead Bay for the past few days — marking a rare find for Brooklyn bird watchers, according to one enthusiast.

‘It is definitely rare,” said Stanley Greenberg, a member of the Brooklyn Bird Club. “I have only ever seen them on the West Coast.” 

The downy out-of-towner is a member of the harlequin species of duck — a diminutive water fowl known for its colorful coat — which are typically seen wading in the distant Pacific Ocean, although they’re sometimes spotted along northern Atlantic coasts off of Newfoundland and Quebec in Canada. 

Nature Photographer Jennifer Kepler was one of, if not the first bird lover to document the unusual sighting on her blog Snapshot of Nature, where she posted images of the critter paddling with a flock of its native cousins. 

“It still thinks it is a bufflehead as it keeps up with a small group of them,” wrote Kepler, referring to one of North America’s smallest diving sea ducks. 

The young duck’s stay in Sheepshead Bay mark’s the fourth recorded sighting of the bird in Kings County, according to Brooklyn Bird Club President Dennis Hrehowsik.

Hrehowsik touted his own roll in spotting the county’s third recorded harlequin duck sighting in November off the shores of Coney Island, where he eyeballed the feathered jester for just a few seconds, before it took flight and was gone. Greenberg suspects that bird and the one in Sheepshead Bay are one in the same. 

“It is possible it’s the same bird, they had a scope to see it,” Greenberg said. “But now you can see it with the naked eye.” 

Hrehowsik theorized that the harlequin duck made his way into Sheepshead Bay earlier in the week, when dense fogs that descended on the borough would have made navigation more difficult for winged migrant. After landing in Brooklyn, the bird may have gotten distracted from its journey while searching for a good place to forage and some other young ducks to mingle with. 

“It wasn’t exactly the habitat it was looking for,” Hrehowsik said. “But especially during the winter migration, they try to find safety in numbers.” 

The harlequin duck isn’t the only rare Brooklyn bird sighting in recent memory. Since the New Year, a varied thrush — native to Alaska and western Canada — was spotted in Prospect Park and a painted bunting — which typically linger in the southeast and south-central United States — was seen in Brooklyn Bridge Park, according to Greenberg. 

While Hrehowsik said the prime birding season typically falls in October or November, it seems to have been drawn out into January which he credits to a warmer winter.

“Where we expect to get rarities from the West, it is unusual to have them this late,” he said.  “And maybe it’s because we are having a warmer winter this year.” 

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