Mandarin ducks don’t occur in Western Nebraska, not naturally. There are people who raise exotic birds who sometimes breed these handsome little Asian birds, and one time (October 1992) one managed to land at Laing Lake, where he spent the winter among a small flock of six male and female wood ducks.
A woman visiting from Arcata, California, a birder, spotted the Mandarin duck. She was very excited to see this life bird, but hesitant to count it because she didn’t think they occurred here.
She contacted the local newspaper and talked with the managing editor, who sometimes wrote about birds in his column. He suggested she contact me since I had some notoriety as the person who had the first and only ever Nebraska phainopepla appear in his backyard.
The phainopepla stayed a couple of months, used the bird bath for water but found food elsewhere. I took photos and reported the sighting to the Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, the organization that reviews rare bird records in this state and determines what class of record to accord each one. Mine got a Class 1 – Photo, just about as good as it gets.
The managing editor felt I probably was sufficiently competent to answer her question because of the phainopepla, but it was just a matter of dumb luck that it chose my backyard and is an unmistakable bird for purposes of identification!
Margaret called me, told me about the duck, which I hadn’t yet seen. I knew wood ducks were up there, having seen them earlier in the season, but the Mandarin duck…! Though I had no doubt she’d see the real deal because they are unmistakable, I told her it probably was an escapee from an exotic bird farm. I promised to go up to the lake and verify the sighting just the same.
After verifying the sighting, I called Margaret back to let her know she was right about the bird, and had she taken any birding outings since coming to Nebraska? She hadn’t, so the next few months I introduced her to the areas and birders that make this part of Nebraska a great place to bird.
The story of the friendship that blossomed is long. It turned out we shared identical tastes in hobbies, books, and music. As far as birding was concerned, Margaret was super at shorebirds, my weakest area for identification, and I was stronger in Eastern birds, many of which occur here along with their Western North American counterparts and, of course, local birds. We were a complete team in the field, though she found the Western Nebraska birding by car method strange enough to comment on! (You have to move around to find the little buggers!)
She had personal family reasons for being here, reasons I needn’t discuss. By late spring of 1993, she returned to Arcata. She came back here for a short time later, but by 1994, she returned to California for the rest of her life.
It turned out that her daughter’s boss at the time was a hobbyist who made decorative duck and shorebird carvings when he wasn’t tied up with his work as an attorney. Coincidentally enough, he also was from Alliance, Nebraska, where I live! Margaret asked him to make a Mandarin duck as a gift for me. He’d never seen one before, but, working from photos created this:
Margaret died in 2006 from cancer. Her gift is one of my prized possessions, a remembrance of a friend who was good company, a great birder, had excellent taste in new authors she shared with me (and I shared my favorites with her), and classical music (she liked late Romantic and Modern; I like Baroque, Classical, and Early Romantic). What we shared in person and in our letters made Margaret the best of friends, even though she and I spent most of that friendship 1435 miles (2310 km) apart.
One idea she had and shared that really stuck with me had to do with fate. She was a daughter of Polish immigrants. She wrote a brilliant commentary back to me about a Rameau opera I shared with her (“Les Boréades”), noting that had her family not come to America, she’d be a farm woman pulling potatoes out of the ground, unaware of this exotic music only the upper class heard and enjoyed in Rameau’s time. “We live in the best of times to have access to such beauty!”
RIP, Margaret. I think of you each time I see this little carved duck. Oh, yeah, same with blue-winged teals in all those little puddles and lakes in the Nebraska Sandhills. That little puddle duck you were so excited to see, that I found too common to get excited about every time you pointed another one out along the road now is “our bird” as much as the Mandarin duck that brought our paths together in the first place.
Yeah, blue-winged teals are special, too.