A photo of a black-bellied wigeon leads down a rabbit hole full of secrets

A photo of a black-bellied wigeon leads down a rabbit hole full of secrets

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Dave Gajewski emailed me a photo of a rare black-bellied wigeon that took me down a rabbit hole that I loved.

The duck was mixed with Canada geese from the Cargill facility on the Indiana side of Wolf Lake. Cargill employee George Nieves took the photo on July 2.

First, I checked with Alan Anderson, Chair of the Chicago Audubon Society’s Research Committee, to make sure it was a black-bellied widgeon.

You are quite the bird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes beautifully she as “a boisterous duck with a bright pink beak and an unusual, long-legged silhouette.” In places like Texas and Louisiana, keep an eye out for noisy flocks of these colorful ducks dropping into fields to forage for seeds or lounging on golf course ponds. Listen to them, too – these ducks really know their reputation up.”

Then why are they showing up here?

Ken Brock, who among other authors “Birds of the Indiana Dunes: Revised Edition” and maintains an Indiana bird database, wrote via email: “Broadly speaking, this species was formerly a tropical duck, it thrived in the lower Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. Apparently global warming has allowed it to expand northward.

“Accordingly, the black-bellied wigeon is now invading Indiana. The state’s first record was in 2002 (June 30) and the numbers are rising fast. In fact, this duck is now breeding in Posey County [Indiana’s southwestern tip]: The first nesting occurred on July 28, 2018 and consisted of one female and nine fluffy chicks.”

Then he gave perspectives for our area: “The first record for the Indiana lakefront was set on July 29, 2011 at Forsythe Park. The second lakeshore record flew past Miller Beach on August 19, 2016. The bird in your photo, the lakeside record, arrived on July 2nd (thanks for the record) and spent the summer.”

Walter Marcisz, former president of the Chicago Ornithological Society and a top birder at Wolf Lake, said, “Very rare, but not unprecedented.”

He found that Rusty McIntire made the last eBird recording of a Black-bellied Wigeon on September 12th at Forsythe Park, Cargill Channel.

Valerie Blaine in a November 2021 article from the online magazine OutdoorIllinois Journal, listed: “They have been sighted in Illinois and Wisconsin for the past 25 years. In recent years successful nests have been confirmed in southern Illinois and in 2020 a successful nest was confirmed in La Crosse, Wisconsin!”

“So if numbers increase as expected, this species could be widespread in a few years,” Brock summarized.

I’ve been the outdoor columnist for The Sun-Times for more than 25 years. I work with a daily focus and rarely step back to see the big picture.

But this duck made me do it. Maybe because it fits the pattern of remarkable changes in our wild world that I’ve witnessed in these 25+ years.

When I started out, the theory behind reports of roadkilled armadillos in Illinois was that they were pranks by college students returning from Missouri or Arkansas. Now armadillos are moving so far north in Illinois that sightings should be reported

Black vultures, smaller than our turkey vultures, arrived and settled in southern Illinois. In the last 20 years we have gone from the first confirmed sightings of cougars, black bears and gray wolves in modern times to sighting counting. The winter migration of Canada geese now makes mostly short stops in Chicago and the suburbs.

None of these are caused for just one reason. Climate change plays a role, as does range expansion, natural dispersal of young males, and habitat change.

Sometimes it’s good to sit back and marvel.

Another view of the black-bellied wigeon with Canada geese at Wolf Lake near the Cargill plant.  Photo credit: George Nieves

Another view of the black-bellied wigeon with Canada geese at Wolf Lake near the Cargill plant.

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