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.
Black sunflower seeds littered a glistening, greasy driveway below the late-model marigold, chrome-trimmed car. Behind the low, rear left tire, a score of house sparrows darted from place to place pecking the ground. Popping the seeds open they quickly gobbled the insides up. I had this bird but I hadn’t had its picture.
“Look, common ground doves.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw there in and among the small little brownish birds, a few larger grayish birds. My focus stayed on adjusting the viewfinder of a camera I was still learning to use. I had that bird, but didn’t have its picture either.
When finally finished with my fumbling, I pointed the camera’s elongated lens toward my seed-eating subjects. They scattered like a frightened flock of birds – which they were of course – but the term means so much more to me now.
I realized then and there that I wouldn’t be able to photograph the birds we see and also narrate our adventures in doing so. “Mimic, would you mind taking over the narrative?”
“Sure,” he said, always ready to help. “But where should I begin?”
“Now is as good a place as any. We just spotted Egyptian Geese and…”
After admiring the Egyptian Geese for a while, we decided to make a turn-a-round and head back to the duck pond. We drove to a turn-a-round, turned around, and on the way back Hawkeye yelled, “DOVE!” When Hawkeye says ‘bird!’ or a bird name, all eyes focus on where she’s pointing.
Snowfeather and I got a good view, since the bird was out our window. Beaker had to get closer to me to see it. But what where we looking at? – A white-winged dove walking on the sidewalk. One of the larger doves, white-wings are distinguished from the others by the white edge on their wings. In flight you mainly see a blur of black and white. Which is what we saw when this skittish dove thought the huge silver beast was too close for comfort.
When we drove away I asked Beaker, “Did you see that white-winged dove?”
He answered, “No.”
I was surprised. “What? You didn’t see that white-winged dove just now?”
His tone of voice changed. “Wait. No, I saw it but I didn’t get a picture of it. That’s what I meant.”
I reassured Beaker. “Don’t worry. White-wings are really common. You’ll get pictures.”
Although Beaker didn’t get pictures of that dove, that day, he did get some of the other birds.
The cold began to bite a little more fiercely. Hands, warmed briefly in coat pockets, cupped sniffling frostbit noses as breath mist flowed through our fingers. Frequent gusts carried sprays of water from the fountain at the center of the pond downwind, in our direction. Like an unwelcome admirer, the wind matched our course and followed us wherever we went. I was beginning to think this birding thing was ‘for the birds’.
“Are those snakes?” Curvy black creatures stretched up from the surface of the water like snakes charmed from a billowing basket. “What are those things out there in the center of the pond?”
Mimic helped to fill in the details. “Cormorants are called snake birds because their long necks, sometimes the only part of their bodies seen above water, are mistaken as snakes.”
Having these charming snake, bird and snake-bird experts around did much to warm my heart but not a whole lot to warm my freezing hands. I didn’t know what I’d snap first, a picture of the cormorants or the five little icicles I used to call fingers. – Click
Through rolled up windows everyone watched the rustle and bustle, the flapping and fluttering of our feathered friends as they flocked on the duck pond outside our car.
It was but a quick retreat from the cold for Mimic and Snowfeather. Feeling much warmer, they were ready to return to the wild, to get back out there and spot a new bird. More than ducks inhabited this duck pond. “I think the rain has let up a bit,” Hawkeye said. “Let’s all get out this time.”
I agreed. “But what if it starts to rain? I don’t want my camera to get wet.”
“I can hold the umbrella for you.”
“That’s nice of you, Mimic. But I don’t think I’ll be shooting from that low of an angle. Besides your a good spotter. You need to be free to spot.”
Mimic, always ready to help, was halfway out the door when Hawkeye promised to provide an umbrella shelter from a higher altitude. If the need be.
I strolled to the left, watching the pond as I went. A bright and sleekly shaped figure, gracefully gliding over the water, captured my attention. It was as white as a swan and as thin as a rail. If it were a duck, the poor thing would be starved. Emaciated duck or not, I knew I needed its picture. “What is that skinny white thing that keeps flying back and forth?”
“That’s a Snowy Egret.”
“Is it lost?” I asked. “There ain’t no snow around here.”
Mimic replied straightforwardly. “It’s called ‘snowy’ because of its color not its habitat. Egrets of all sorts are fairly common here.”
Still, at this particular duck pond, at this particular time, the only egret within eyesight was the sleek and shiny, snowy one. Snow itself hadn’t been seen in years. Although it certainly felt cold enough.
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!”