HELLO AGAIN TO ALL: 10Th Anniversary of Smew
A Stunning Birding Adventure: First Sighting of a Smew in Missouri
by Paul Bauer
Yes, I was also one of some 40 birders at Riverlands on Saturday, January 13, 2001.
We were there to view a confirmed sighting of a Barrow's Goldeneye Duck, seen
on the previous day. However, the involvement by an eight year-old girl in the chance
discovery of a tiny Eurasian merganser-type duck, considered accidental except in the
Aleutians, became one of those once-in-lifetime events for everyone present. Certainly
this sighting of the Smew, a new bird record for Missouri, was the high event for that day !
These memories attempt to share the excitement of this "Stunning Birding Adventure".
On the previous day, I believe Charlene Malone had reported sighting a male
Barrow's Goldeneye duck in the shallow west end of Ellis Bay at Riverlands. Along with
many I charged up to see this bird, since it would be a new state bird for me. [ In June
1974, I had seen them as a life bird in Yellowstone National Park.] This Barrow's was
easily found and identified by the odd shaped (not round) white patch on the head in
front of, and below the eye.
Now that I had seen this bird, and could count it for my Missouri life list, my efforts
focused on trying to get a photograph. [Today my priorities are completely reversed:
get the photo first to document that unique instant, and at the same time you have also
seen the bird ! Now I call this thinking process "Photo-Birding", and it only possible with
the newest digital cameras, that have very rapid auto-focus and a viewfinder image
quality almost as good as many binoculars, and most likely at a higher magnification ! ]
This golden eye duck was too quick for me. Repeatedly it would quickly surface, and in
less than a few seconds it would dive, and later resurface in a new location. [My guess is
that it was hyper-hungry since it was about 800 miles east of where it was expected.] With
my cameras of that era, I could not find the bird, and manually focus the lens before it would
dive. Sadly, I must admit, I gave up my photo efforts that day; maybe the light got poor !.
But everyone there made plans to try again the next day, since many birders from across
the state were known to be planning to visit Riverlands in the morning.
On that Saturday, Jan. 13, 2001, a mob of birders assembled at Ellis Bay in Riverlands. At
least 40 birders from four organizations were present. Audubon groups from Kansas
City, and Columbia, Missouri joined sizable groups of local birders representing
St. Louis Audubon, and the Webster Groves Nature Study Society. But the bird had
moved ! Fortunately it was quickly re-found in the deeper water of the Mississippi River
about 200 yards below the Clark Bridge spanning the River to Alton, IL There was a mad
dash and a stampede of cars that descended on the limited road space below the bridge.
Everyone was frantic to set up their telescopes. All I could hear was slamming car doors
and trunk lids.
Again the Barrow's Goldeneye was quickly found, and the tension to see the Barrow's was
more relaxed. Now the fun begins; this story is just starting, but the action is almost finished !
Near where I was standing at my scope, I overheard Anna Hendricks, an 8-year old girl, ask
one of those innocent questions that only a child would be brave enough to ask: What's the
name of that little white duck out there ? With my binoculars, I looked at where she was
pointing and realized that I didn't know it's name. Anna's father had brought her on several
birding trips during the Fall, and I remember being impressed that Anna knew that it was a
duck and not a gull.
Instantly pandemonium's swept over the group. I don't know his name, but a very tall man from the
Kansas City group looked at the bird and clearly shouted without any hesitation: IT'S A SMEW !
Also I believe Mike Grant was credited with the initial species identification. Checking our field
guides, they were right; an adult male SMEW. For me and I would guess for most people
present this was a: New Life Bird; a new US-area bird; and a new Missouri and St. Louis area
bird. No sooner had this thought crossed my mind, when I realized it might be an escaped bird
and it would not count for anything; just a minus-wow !
Now the intense documentation started. Nearly everyone was taking photographs (I never did
get photos of the Barrow's), and taking notes. After floating downstream, this little duck would
fly back upstream almost to the bridge. When this bird was flying, the path was straight, and
landings were well controlled (no clipped wings) , and no leg bands or damaged feathers were
observed. The consensus was that this bird was NOT a captive bird that had escaped from
a private collection or gun club. With several previous rare waterfowl we had gone down this
sad path before. Also the Mute Swan is an example of this issue.
Then I remembered the St. Louis Zoo. Some years earlier Dick Anderson and I were involved
in identifying an East African Superb Starling seen in nearby Godfry, IL (that had escaped from
our zoo). That evening I called Ron Goellner who was then the General Curator at the
St. Louis Zoo. Later Ron called me back to say that his helpers had confirmed to him that "all
seven of their Smews were present and accounted for." The last reported Smew sighting was
on March 5, 2001. The documentation was submitted and accepted, and "everyone lived happily
ever after!" Reliving this experience by sharing these memories, was also exciting for me.
P.S. When I was asked to add my detailed memories to this Smew discussion, I didn't
want to use my time for this, and wondered why it was necessary. Now I can admit
that I really enjoyed reliving this unique adventure. Several side thoughts:
o This could be easier to do with a tape recorder, and maybe more exciting with
voice and emotions added. Also their would be no spelling or grammar issues.
o Say, this might really be fun with a small group sitting around a large fireplace.
o A collection for some 20 or 30 similar experiences like this might excite beginners
to get a more intense interest in birding. Is this a new project for someone ?
Now these thoughts may start another avalanche of comments and discussion on MOBIRDS.
P.S.S. Newsletter editors have my permission to use this material if they desire to: PEB.
Always Have Fun; Go Birding ! Paul Bauer; St. Louis County, MO.