MISSOULA -- Radd Icenoggle’s Sunday night search for a screech owl turned into something far more after spotting a bird species never seen before in Montana.
“I had driven out in the Blue Mountain area after getting a report of a screech owl there,” Icenoggle said. “I was looking down in this ditch and said to myself, ‘Man, that’s an odd-looking duck.’ ”
One close look later and Icenoggle knew he was about to make history.
“As soon as I looked at it closer, I knew right away it was a Baikal teal,” he said. “There have only been 11 or 12 of them spotted in the continental U.S. south of Alaska.”
It had never been seen before in Montana.
“This is something that doesn’t happen very often,” Icenoggle said.
And so he eased his way in closer to take some photographs to document his find. Then he rushed home to process his digital images and send them out to the world of local birders.
“I know there are a lot of people out there looking for it now,” he said.
Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge outdoor recreation planner and avid birder Bob Danley was among those who dropped everything in hopes of getting a look at something so rare.
Danley’s lifetime birding list boasts 641 North American species, but he never dreamed that someday he would see a Baikal teal.
When Danley got the word Sunday night, he jumped in his vehicle and high-tailed it to Blue Mountain. When he didn’t spot the bird that night, he got up early Monday to make another try.
He found it in an irrigation ditch.
“While it wasn’t in the most pristine location, it’s probably the rarest bird I’ve ever seen,” Danley said. “It’s something you would never expect to see in your lifetime without spending a great deal of money to travel to Alaska or overseas.”
“This animal is incredible,” he said. “It has such stunning plumage and it’s so very rare for this part of the world. For the birding community, this is a very big deal.”
Danley expects that once word spreads, there will be people boarding airplanes soon in hopes they can arrive before the bird moves on to someplace new.
The Baikal teal is a dabbler that’s sometimes called a squawk duck. It measures between 15 and 17 inches long and up to 15 inches tall. It’s slightly larger than the common teal.
“It’s a really distinguished, pretty-looking bird,” Icenoggle said.
The male is unmistakable, with its striking green nape and its long-dropping dark scapular feathers. It breeds in eastern Russia and winters in eastern Asia.
No one can be sure how it ended up in Montana.
Danley thinks the high winds that some call the Siberian Express may be the cause of this good fortune for local birding enthusiasts.
“All those powerful storm fronts that have blown through here the past couple of weeks may have blown this bird in,” Icenoggle agreed. “However it arrived, it’s a continental-level rarity that it showed up anywhere around here.”
Icenoggle will add his photographs of the bird to a short narrative he plans to write about the discovery to create a report he’ll present to the state Audubon rare bird committee.
“It will be a first state record of the Baikal teal if it sticks,” he said.
The bird doesn’t appear to be an escapee from a domestic duck farming operation. Icenoggle said he couldn’t see any of the typical signs that it was a captive bird in the photographs he took.
“You would expect to see leg bands or evidence of feather clippings,” he said. “I do not see any of that on this bird. There aren’t many aviaries in the Northwest that raise this species of bird. I don’t even know of one.”
Icenoggle has spotted and identified about 1,200 birds in the 22 years that he’s been an avid birder.
“This is definitely the biggest rarity that I’ve ever seen,” he said.