The evening weather report showed a line of storms from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. Bright yellow and red, the band represented severe thunder storms sweeping across the eastern United States, spawning fierce winds, even tornadoes.
I learned earlier in the evening that some altogether unexpected birds had shown up at the Salem Lake marina. Social media make it so easy to spread the word about bird such as these, and Audubon Society of Forsyth County maintains a system of alerts for just such events.
I set my car on cruise control to avoid the temptation of exceeding the speed limit, wove through downtown traffic lights and made my way to the lake.
Birds can sense the approach of storms from many miles away through changes in barometric pressure and infrasound — frequencies produced by thunder that are below the hearing range of humans. It may have been this broad band of severe weather that drove seven black-bellied whistling-ducks to Salem Lake.
With their rose-red bills and bubble-gum pink legs, they were worth a hasty drive across town.
They weren’t the only birds out of place. Two common loons paddled about on the lake while Caspian terns sailed overhead. While these birds are occasionally seen at the lake, it’s unusual to see them at this time of year.
There are several species of whistling-ducks scattered around the world, mainly in the Tropics, and the black-bellied is the only one whose normal distribution is closest to us. It’s breeding range extends along both coasts of Mexico, throughout Florida, West Texas and most of Mississippi, northward to the southwestern tip of Tennessee. Along the east coast, it has been seen as nearby as Huntington Beach State Park just south of Myrtle Beach.
Nevertheless, this is only the second time this bird has been reported in Forsyth County.
Formerly known as tree-ducks because of their habit of nesting in tree cavities — much like the unrelated wood duck- black-bellied Whistling-ducks are gregarious, sometimes seen in flocks of 1000.
Whistling-ducks are difficult to categorize among waterfowl because some of their traits are like those found in ducks, while others are shared instead with swans and geese. Swans and geese genders look alike, usually with muted tones of black, brown and white. Males and females share the responsibilities of incubation of their eggs and care of their young.
Most male ducks, on the other hand, are brightly colored whereas the females, who do all the incubation and care of young are well-camouflaged.
Black-bellied whistling-ducks are, like ducks, more brightly colored than most geese and swans, and their overall size and bill shape are clearly like ducks.
But they have long legs and necks like geese, and, like swans, they are sometimes seen swimming with their babies on their backs.
With their striking appearance and admixture of duck, goose and swan traits, this bird is a treat to see, even more so given its rarity in our area.
The seven whistling-ducks, the loons and terns chose their refuge well, because the line of severe storms stalled before reaching Salem Lake. Dark thunderheads towered over the downtown area but stopped just short of the lake.
Several birders congregated at the marina and snapped photos until the park closed at 7:30 PM. More arrived the following morning hoping to see the whistling-ducks but were disappointed. The birds had already flown, perhaps returning to their usual haunts to the south and west.
That’s the way nature works, sometimes. It gives you a taste of something wonderful, then moves on.