Archived Story

Bluebill’s long journey leads to Alabama

Published 2:04pm Saturday, February 2, 2013

Clinton Walston was sitting in one of his favorite waterfowl hunting areas on Lake Guntersville this past season when a duck came whistling past.
What was thought to be just one of the 20 or so species that visit the Tennessee River chain in Alabama each year turned out to be a very special duck, at least in Walston’s hunting history.
“A few of my buddies and I were hunting this island I’ve hunted for a few years, but the action was a little slow,” said Walston, who said he tries to hunt every week he possibly can during the season. “There weren’t enough people hunting to keep the ducks moving. So we decided to move and went to a place called Grider’s Slough to look for some diver ducks, but they hadn’t moved in, yet. After we pulled up on the bank, a bird came flying by. I had my gun in my hands, so I just threw up and shot and knocked it down.”
The bird, which turned out to be a lesser scaup (aka bluebill) wasn’t completely finished and starting diving to try to evade Walston.
This happened a couple of times until he picked the right spot to stop the boat.
The duck surfaced within gun range and Walston finished the job.
“I cut the motor off where the duck had gone under and waited,” he said. “He finally popped up about 35 yards away and I shot him. I dropped him in the boat and I got a feeling I had better look at that bird a little closer. I picked him up again and saw the band. I was ecstatic.”
The variety of ducks encountered by waterfowl hunters in north Alabama includes mallards, pintails, black ducks, wigeons, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, scaup, canvasbacks, buffleheads, ruddy ducks, ringnecks, gadwalls and wood ducks.
Walston kept his prized scaup near him the rest of the trip. “I didn’t let it get out of my sight,” he said.
When Walston had a chance, he called the number printed on the band to report the harvested duck.
“When I talked to the lady about the band she said, ‘Read those numbers back to me,’” he said. “I thought that was unusual. She said that duck came from Minto, Alaska. I thought it might have been a far-off band because it was a diver, but I’m thinking some place like Mich. or Ontario. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that duck could have come from a few hundred miles from Russia.”
The scaup was banded at the Minto Flats State Wildlife Refuge between Minto and Nenana, Alaska.
The 500,000-acre refuge is about 35 miles west of Fairbanks, where the bander resides.
Dr. Mark Lindberg of the University of Alaska banded the bird on May 21, 2010.
“When I told my buddies where it came from, they said, ‘There ain’t no way,’” Walston said.  “It blows my mind that that duck flew across several flyways and didn’t get shot. I’m sure it got shot at by a lot better hunters than me. He just happened to give up the ghost that day.”
While it does “blow the minds” of most people, waterfowl biologists know that waterfowl can migrate unbelievable distances from the breeding grounds to their wintering grounds. David Hayden, waterfowl specialist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife Section, said that while Walston’s scaup is special, it doesn’t set a record.
“We’ve had a few birds in Alabama that have come from parts of Siberia,” Hayden said. “Most of the birds we get come from Canada. Some teal will migrate from Canada all the way to South America.”
Hayden doesn’t downplay the importance of Walston’s band recovery at all.
“That’s a pretty good prize to get a scaup coming out of Alaska,” Hayden said. “Most of the scaup that come from Alaska tend to stay west of Alabama. Most of the Mississippi Flyway scaup come from the middle of Canada.
“With a bird like that scaup, it may have gotten into some fairly strong westerly winds That scaup may have gotten blown off course somewhere.”
As for Walston’s bluebill, one of his buddies consumed the bird.
“After I shot the duck the second time, it wasn’t suitable for mounting,” he said. “I keep that band close. I like to rub it every once in a while.”
Rainer is an Outdoors columnist for The Outlook