The White Stripes

Teal, Kincraig Lake from my archives (January 2019)

‘And the message from coming from my eyes says ‘Leave It Alone”. Seven Nation Army, The White Stripes

I spent a lot of my birding day yesterday looking at Teal. An hour or so was whiled away scanning through them on the incoming tide on the Wyre Estuary, and much of a couple of hours at Marton Mere was also spent combing through the flocks. And why not, you may say, they are very handsome if diminutive ducks. But essentially stripping it back to basics I was looking for the right / wrong kind of white stripe.

Green-winged Teal is the sister species of our Teal, or Eurasian Teal to be proper and consistent. They are so similar that there is ongoing debate about whether they should be treated as species, and some authorities have ‘lumped’ them into a single species again. It may not be too long before they only count for one species on life lists, self-found lists and so on.

Green-winged Teal are American birds that regularly end up on this side of the pond. We are gradually learning how to identify the females with care and forensic attention to detail. and the males have slightly different faces, but essentially it’s all about the white stripes. On ‘our’ Teal on a bird on the water this is a horizontal mark on the wings, whereas the equivalent on the Yankee visitor is a vertical one on the fore flank.

A common colloquial definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I have been looking at Teal flocks on and off for over 40 years, I’ve never found a Green-winged Teal. I’ve seen some, including one in Blackpool, and as you can see from the picture of that bird below with a local congener they aren’t a particularly difficult identification challenge.

Eurasian and Green-winged Teal, Mythop, Blackpool, March 2021. I am sure you can work out which is which

So why do I put myself through this? Well Green-winged Teal is the kind of ‘rarity’ that’s frequent enough for every keen birder to believe they will find one. They aren’t even considered rare any longer, the national rarities committee stopped considering them over thirty years ago as they are too regular. It would almost feel like a tongue in cheek comment to say that ‘Teal with a white vertical stripe’ would generally be satisfactory as a description, but in the county I live in (Lancashire) you don’t even need to evidence your record just say you’ve seen one. Personally I think a transatlantic vagrant that occurs a couple of times at most in every year is worth a few lines about the observation or photographic proof but there you go.

So what’s the motivation to carry on and not ‘leave it alone’. We all have different drivers and what follows is speaking only for myself. I think there’s something inherently awe inspiring about birds that cross the Atlantic, and the added thrill of finding your own makes it worth the effort however often it’s futile. And ultimately it’s possible to have a great time spending time with familiar nature and an even better time unearthing the exceptional in its midst.

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