Red tide maroons bluebills

Peace River Wildlife Center has had a tragic influx of patients in the past few weeks.  We have taken in over 40 lesser scaups (locally called bluebills by many people), mostly found in the Port Charlotte Beach and Bayshore Park areas.  Many of them died in transport or shortly after arrival, and more were found dead on site.  It is assumed that red tide is the culprit, and we are treating the surviving patients accordingly—with moderate success if they get into treatment early enough.

Lesser scaups recovering in hospital cage
Lesser scaups recovering in hospital cage
Thanks to some alert community members, more birds were brought to us while they still had a chance for recovery.  PRWC’s volunteer rescuers Barb and Tom Taylor were instrumental in getting many birds to us.  They patrolled the areas where most of the debilitated birds were found numerous times daily, at dawn and during tide changes.

One boater pulled a white pelican out of the water near the mouth of the Myakka River. He then drove his boat to the El Jobean bridge where he met PRWC rescuers Lee and Charlotte Dewitt, who in turn drove the bird to PRWC.

A lady hopped the sea wall, scratching up her legs in the process, to collect a scaup who was drowning on the shore of Charlotte Harbor.  A man pulled a scaup out of the water and into his kayak, and then paddled for close to two hours to get the distressed bird to us.  Another man jumped the fence at TT’s Tiki Bar to rescue a scaup from the rocks.

The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Department Marine Unit patrolled the shores and kept us apprised of what they found.  Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) also patrolled the areas and helped us with rescues.  They also transported the birds that did not survive for necropsy.

Lesser scaups are a medium-sized duck that nests in the boreal forests of Central Alaska and Manitoba.  They migrate in late fall, among the last to leave as ponds freeze over.  In the winter they can be found in the Gulf region, Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean.  Males and non-breeding females head out slightly earlier for southern locales.  Breeding females stay with their broods as long as possible before embarking on the chicks’ first journey.

Since the lesser scaup is one of the last species to migrate back up north in the spring to begin breeding, their offspring are quite young during their first fall migration.  They are a precocial species, and chicks are hatched with their eyes open, covered in down, and able to move around on their own.  The youngsters leave the nest within hours of hatching and feed themselves immediately.  They can dive the day they are hatched, but are too buoyant to stay down long.  By five to seven weeks, they are capable of diving up to 60 feet and staying down for up to 25 seconds.

A rather distinctive diving duck, the lesser scaup is similar in appearance to the great scaup, which is only slightly larger, but rarely frequents Southwest Florida.  The male has a black domed head, neck, and mantle. His irises are a brilliant yellow and his bill is slate blue (hence the colloquial name).   The female is a greyish-brown, with olive-green irises and a dark bill with white feathers at the base.  Both sexes have white bellies and secondary wing feathers with a dark band at the edge, visible in flight.

The lesser scaup is carnivorous.  Its diet is primarily comprised of crustaceans, insects, and mollusks.  While it is one of the most widespread ducks in North America, it is not well studied, especially in the Southwest Florida region.

The one positive note of losing all these birds, is that FWC will be able to study the ducks that did not survive and learn more about this species, especially as it pertains to those migrating to and through this area.  While routinely a late migrator (September to November), the peak scaup migration usually occurs in mid- to late November.  This rather late migration, combined with a local red tide outbreak, may have been too much for the birds.  If there are any other factors involved, FWC will find out and notify us.  The results of those tests will be invaluable to us in treating the current birds as well as future patients.

PRWC wants to commend the local community members who went out of their way to help us with numerous rescues.  We are also grateful to those who donated toward the care of these critically ill birds, which is quite labour-intensive and demands the use of a lot of expensive supplies.  Whether you concur with famed elder statesperson Clinton about the necessity of collaboration for childhood upbringing, it does indeed take a village to conserve wildlife, and we are grateful for the support of our village-community.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM