Northern Shovelers were not the only ducks that were avoiding us. There were also the ring-necked ducks. Ring-necks are diving ducks. They are distinguished from their relatives by a white ring on the bill and the nearly invisible cinnamon neck ring, in which it got its name. Ring-necks are quite shy and never come for bread. This is because they are diving ducks and dive for their food; aquatic plants and aquatic insects.
Another reason they are shy is because they are a very common sport duck and are also hunted for food. Apparently Beaker’s camera looked like a gun. Like the shovelers, they avoided us and swam to the opposite side we were on. We had a plan. Beaker would hide on one of the sides and the rest of us would drive the ducks to him.
We yelled and jumped. We accidentally woke up a turtle. Even the used-to-people Muscovy Duck got annoyed and swam away. Of course it worked on the shy, ring-necked ducks. Beaker got good pictures that were nice and close up but I bet you still can’t see their hidden neck ring.
We got out of the car and decided to take pictures of the two other ducks at the pond we hand not yet got close to. Among them were Northern Shovelers. Northern Shovelers are medium-sized ducks with a green head, rusty underside and very distinctive shovel-like bills. Usually they are found in groups of 5-10, males and females, coming on land and wanting bread. But his time there were only two males on the other side of the pond. So we walked to the other side of the pond.
When we got there it appeared that the shovelers were on the other side of the pond now. Perhaps our eyes were deceiving us. But when we went to the other side, they again were on the opposite side. We walked to where they were a little faster this time. But they swam a little faster and where once again on the other side. This went on once more.
We devised a plan. Hawkeye, Snowfeather and I would go where the ducks were and distract them while Beaker got pictures. It worked. We jumped, yelled and acted like crazy people and drove those ducks straight to an ambush – where Beaker and his camera lied in wait.
As we turned around the corner, on our way back to the pond, Hawkeye yelled, “Bird!” My head swerved just in time to see a black-bellied whistling duck. Only Hawkeye and I saw it. But as we walked around the freezing pond the little whistler came around near us. It was strange to see one walking all alone.
Usually they stay together in groups of twenty, crowding you and whistling for bread. But this one was all alone.
Later, when we got into the car though, twenty more flew in. And it just might not be a coincidence. They say Texas is the best place in the U.S. to see black-bellied whistling ducks, but we have not seen them since that day. Could they be avoiding us? Could these ducks be smarter than we think? Or… could all ducks be smarter than we think?
Maybe not. But it took some brains to figure out how to photograph the next few ducks.
Once around the pond was more than enough. We hurried back into the car, started the engine and turned up the heat. Our shivers lessened. The windshield and our noses slowly began to defrost. We felt the coziness of cloth seats as warm air blew above and below us. I started to feel my fingertips once more. “Well that was fun.” It wasn’t going to be easy to get me to go back out there in that cold wet air. “Maybe we can drive around a bit and see what other birds we can see…”
“From the car!” Hawkeye knew my words and my sentiment.
We discussed where we could go next. Home wasn’t an option. Perhaps there was another way to park and see birds on the opposite side of the pond. “Where does that road go? Turn right here.”
“Which way?” Hawkeye asked.
I smiled and clarified my statement. “Turn right, ‘right’ here, please. I think we might find the backside of the pond this way.”
I was wrong. The only way around the pond was by foot and these two little feet of mine were only now beginning to thaw. It would be awhile before I would ‘warm up to the idea’ of getting back out. For now we’d do some bird watching from our car.
As we turned down a street in the neighborhood behind the duck pond a shout came form the backseat. “Look!” This shout I heard. Hawkeye heard it too and safely slowed the car.
Fifty feet off to the left, in the front yard of a mid-century garden home, stood what looked to me like two faded lawn decorations of short and squatty flamingos. Did they loose their legs? These things happen overtime you know.
“What are they?”
Of course there’s always those neighborhood hoodlums that run around ruining everything. Taking bats to mailboxes wasn’t enough for these goons, now they were attacking lawn decor!
As I was lost in my thoughts, a positive identification was made.”Those are Egyptian Geese! Wow! What in the world are they doing here?”
This ain’t Egypt, I said to myself, ready to give my standard ‘are they lost’ reply. I’d been there, done that, so instead I said, “That is unusual. Isn’t it, Mimic?” As it turned out I was glad I held back the humor.
“Very.” Mimic said, his face shining like the sun on a summer day.
Just like his mother’s always has, now his smile had the warming effect. I wasn’t cold anymore. I learned something, sitting in silence, staring at a rare goose with my wife, daughter and son. No matter how bitter life in this old world becomes, it’s family that keeps us from freezing.
An empty plastic bag dangled from his hand, the last moistened morsel fell to the ground and was readily consumed by a long yellow bill. Their appetites remained insatiable. Each quack seemed to say ‘Feed us more. Quack, more. Quack more!’
Mimic hurried back into the car, his shoes met the floor mat with a muddying squish. Snowfeather followed soon after and quickly closed the door. “My hands are freezing,” she said.
“Would you like to borrow my gloves?” replied Hawkeye.
My camera, untrained upon the waddling beasts outside, clicked once more. The captured image displayed briefly. “I’m having trouble focusing.”
“Too may ducks? Too much commotion?” Mimic asked.
“No, I just don’t know how to use this camera. It takes a long time to focus. I think I’m going to have to do this manually.” I flipped a switch on the side the lens and quickly refocused on a brown and white bird. “What kind of duck is that?”
“That’s a mallard.”
“The one right there? I thought mallards had a bright green head.”
“They do.” Mimic spotted the same duck. “It’s a pekin.”
“It’s peeking at what?”
“Not peeking,” Mimic continued matter-of-factly. “It’s a pekin duck.”
“Peking Duck? I thought that was a Chinese dish?”
Mimic could take no more mindless chatter and at last spoke plainly. “A pekin is a breed of mallard.”
“The white ones are called pekins,” Snowfeather said softly.
“What are the ones with the green head called?”
I sensed this was going to take a little more dissection of terms, perhaps some etymology was in order. I decided to begin again, this time with a simple, single question. And this time I addressed Hawkeye, the word expert. “What’s a mallard?”
“Nothing,“ she said smiling. “What’s a matter with you?”
A cold drizzle fell as we walked out of the restaurant. The weather wasn’t getting any better. The air bit a bit more bitterly. We huddled into the car, turned on the windshield wipers and turned up the heat. Hawkeye put the car in reverse. Would we go home and call it quits? Was it too cold to continue?
“Let’s go birding!”
Mimic’s words inspired us to press on despite the inclemency. The car was put in drive and our birding adventure shifted into high gear. We were headed for the nearby neighborhood duck pond. Ducks have no problem with rain and apparently the cold doesn’t faze them much either. “It’s like water off a ducks back.” Mimic said.
“Well it’s still too cold for me. Beaker, darling, you can take our little ducklings out for a stroll around the pond. I’ll wait here in the nice warm car.”
“I’d love to my dearest Hawkeye, but there’s no way I’m taking this camera out in that wet mess. We can keep an eye on them from here and I can get the pictures through the window.”
Young as they are, Mimic and Snowfeather ventured into the miserableness – braving the cold us ‘old people’ feared or were too sensible to endure – to feed our fine feathered friends the stale bread we had saved in our freezer.
“Look! They’re attacking him.” The ducks swarmed to Mimic at the first sign of the half thawed old squishy stuff. They were relentless and looked starved. “Quick, get a picture!”
“Okay, but I really don’t want pictures of birds behaving badly. Where are their manners? You always see ducks walk in straight lines all nice and neat. But these birds are on a feeding frenzy! – What kind of ducks are these anyway?”
The family’s ‘bird knowledge base’ follows this hierarchy: Mimic is our ‘go to guy’ whenever anything aviary is needed to be known. Snowfeather follows secondly as Mimics understudy of sorts, ready to fill in at a moment’s notice. Hawkeye is third and can identify most common birds with ease. I follow lastly, recognizing only a few birds here and there. I’m better with faces than with names.
These ducks looked familiar, I’d seen them before. Hawkeye provided the help. “Those ugly ones with the red thing on their heads, those are Muscovy.” Conversations lose some birding merit when the experts are out. The facts may not be so factual, but we get by.
“Oh, yeah. Those are the ducks that peck and chase little children at duck ponds all over the world. Hurry, roll down the window. Let’s get a picture!”