Saturday, December 13, 2008


I've long been infatuated with ducks. Even as an elementary school lad, I would pore over the accounts of sea ducks in the books and references that I had, trying to learn more about them. To me, growing up in landlocked Columbus, Ohio, birds like scoters and eiders had an exotic and wild aura, and I would even attempt to sketch them in what I imagined their cold coastal Atlantic haunts must look like.

And to this day, the diving ducks remain amongst my favorite groups of birds.

About two years ago, I was invited to speak at the Canton Audubon Society's annual Christmas Holiday meeting, which featured a raffle. I was instantly struck by two of the raffle items: a pair of beautifully carved and finished Long-tailed Duck decoys, one a male in alternate (breeding) plumage, and the other a drake in winter plumage. I found out that they were the handiwork of longtime birders Laura and Tim Dornan, and at the time I had no idea that they were carvers. Tim sculpts the birds from a block of wood, and Laura brings them further to life with her painting.

Of course, I bought some raffle tickets, hoping to snag one of the Long-tailed Ducks, and promptly lost. However, I was able to strike a deal later with the winner of the winter-plumaged Long-tail, and am now the proud owner.

Gorgeous drake Long-tailed Duck, once known by the more colorful if less visually descriptive name of Oldsquaw. The tail streamers on this decoy are made of metal for durability's sake, but blend seamlessly into the body of the bird. It is resting on an elevated stand, as the bottom of the decoy sports a keel, which would permit it to float correctly in the surf. But this bird will not be seeing any water, at least under my ownership.

Long-tailed Ducks are interesting in that both sexes have an alternate and a basic plumage, just as do many songbirds. Drakes in their breeding coats are much blacker than the bird above. We don't see many Long-tails here in Ohio, but elsewhere on the Great Lakes flocks numbering into the thousands congregate. Excellent divers, Long-taileds have reportedly been caught in trawler nets up to 200 feet down!

This was the first Dornan I specifically commissioned - a stunning drake Harlequin Duck, one of my favorite birds. The males are almost outlandish with their patterns of dots and dashes set against plumage of blue and cinnamon. The scientific name is Histrionicus histrionicus, which refers to a character of traditional Italian comedy and pantomime, the Harlequin. This actor wore a diamond-patterned outfit and performed tricks, or "histrionics".

Birds of crashing surf and turbulent streams, Harlequins adeptly negotiate rough waters that are beyond the scope of most birds. Purple Sandpipers are regular winter associates - the sandpipers foraging on wave-washed breakwalls, and the ducks riding in the crashing surf just beyond. Apparently, it is not uncommon to find Harlequins Ducks with mended bone breaks and fractures, the result of life in perilous surf.

Barrow's Goldeneye drake, my next Dornan commission. The blacker body and bold teardrop of white before the eye easily separate it from the Common Goldeneye. This species nests in cavities, and often frequents swift rivers and streams. It is quite the rarity in Ohio, with but seven or so records, all of them from Lake Erie. The last report dates to 1994, and we are probably due another soon. I've got some good vibes about Barrow's Goldeneye, and am hopeful that one will appear this January or February, probably at Eastlake Power Plant or Avon Lake Power Plant. Hey, one can only hope for the best, and a cooperative Barrow's Goldeneye in Ohio would be a state bird for most of us.

Drake Surf Scoter, which I just received this week. Love it. Scoters are cool, and will always rank high among my favorite ducks. Adult male Surf Scoters are sometimes known as "Skunkheads" due to the striking pattern of bold white splotches. Look at the bill on this thing! That's a clam-cracker, to be sure, and scoters feed heavily on molluscs so a strong sturdy bill is a real asset. The scientific name is Melanitta perspicillata, and the latter epithet means "spectacular", and refers to the colorful bulbous bill.
Note the hefty keel on this decoy, which is heavily weighted with a lead strip. Tim researches the work of other carvers and their work, and replicates working birds. Surf Scoters often inhabit rough waters, and the weighty keel is necessary to keep the decoy in good trim as it rides in the surf.

Scoters, especially Surf and Black, have become more frequent in the last decade plus along Lake Erie, no doubt capitalizing on all of the introduced Zebra and Quagga mussels, which didn't appear in Lake Erie until 1988.

Here all of my Dornan-carved decoys, gracing a prominent perch in my office. I've asked Tim and Laura for a drake Black Scoter next, and it will look great with these other decoys. Who knows, if they'll keep working with me, maybe I'll eventually amass all of the sea ducks, then we can start on the hens of all these species! Thanks Tim and Laura.


Dawn Fine said...

those are beautiful works of art...enjoy them..thanks for sharing..and for such and informative blog

Bill of the Birds said...

Jambo Jimbo!

These are lovely! The Dornans are great folks and truly talented. We're lucky to have them here in Ohio.

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