Tag Archives: ducks

Snowy Birding

There’s no such thing as too many layers when it’s 20 degrees out and snow blowing sideways. Three was the magic number – three layers of pants, three layers of tops, and wishing I’d had 3 layers of socks rather than 2. Not sure I could have fit three layers of socks in my shoes, but one is tempted by such thoughts when your toes transition from pretty cold to one notch short of painful.


Photo by author, Long Island. 2017. Gulls on a pond, including an unusual black-headed gull, visiting from Europe – presumably with his papers in order.

But, it was a beautiful day for birds!


Photo by author, Long Island, 2017. 

I saw several species for the first time – common eider, horned lark, purple sandpiper, ruddy turnstones, and the highlight, 3 male harlequin ducks bobbing placidly in the icy gray waters. (There was a female harlequin duck too, but in the duck world, it’s the males that are the real showstoppers. Even the 4 harbor seals we saw barely deserve a mention compared to the stunning male harlequin ducks.)

I have been aching to see these improbable creatures. I even had a dream the night before that I had seen a huge group of harlequin ducks, and I woke up super excited to share my birding adventure before realizing that I had been tricked by my subconscious and still had to venture out into the frosty morning.

At the beach, I disbelievingly stared through the rapidly-fogging binoculars as long as I could as they dove down and popped back up in the whitecaps. The only good thing about leaving the snowy beach was that the feeling gradually returned to my abused feet. While we saw other notable birds after that part of the trip, my mind was filled with visions of harlequin ducks. I was also quickly preoccupied with figuring out who among my friends and family could be tricked into joining me in future snowy beach birding.

If reincarnation is real, I want to come back as a male harlequin duck gifted with self-awareness, so that I can revel in being the most beautiful bird around.


copyright Glenn Bartley, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, November 2009

Winter Chill

I complain unnecessarily about silly things. I especially have a tendency to complain about the cold, although now I feel a twinge of reluctance to do so, since the cold days are not as cold and the cold comes later than feels right. I would rather complain about cold than see honeybees buzzing around on a 60 degree December day.

So, to celebrate the cold (while still above historical averages), I walked around a local pond to celebrate the New Year with a two-pronged goal:  see some cool wildlife and not whine about the chill and rain.


Nearby pond with a mix of mostly gulls and geese. 2017



Red-bellied woodpecker on utility pole. 2017


(An aside-the spring feels like the true new year for me, with the ground and water and air bursting with renewed life.)

I hit the jackpot for a quick winter walk at a random time of day-heard a kingfisher’s rattling call, saw a small group of hooded mergansers (best guess, no binoculars), unfortunately startled some gadwalls, and spotted a red-bellied woodpecker at the top of an electrical pole.

Hope you are starting off the New Year with some wildlife sightings!

Tiny Ducks with Big Names

I know animals should be valued for more than their charisma and appeal to humans. Yet, I can’t resist enthusing to everyone about how adorable buffleheads are. I love the iridescent heads of the males and the understated white stripe on the females.

Yesterday was a gift of a warm, upper 50’s day, improved vastly by the fact that the water was so clear and the buffleheads so close to the edge that I could track the male underwater after his bob-and-dive, his webbed feet and propelling him through the water.


Photo by author in Central Park, March 2016, of a male bufflehead duck motoring towards his mate, who’s out of sight. 

Kudos to my patient friend for letting me watch this guy and his mate hunt underwater for a while, and retroactive gratitude to Olmsted (among many) for planning such a beautiful park with all sorts of buoyant visitors.

Ducks in the Hudson

This winter has been terrific for seeing all sorts of ducks in the Hudson Bay–today I saw a red-throated loon (what a misnomer for winter identification), two mergansers, a bobbing male bufflehead about 20 feet from shore, and a flock of Brant geese. I can never get enough of watching their miniature parabolas upward before disappearing beneath the water.

This picture is of a different duck, the Labrador Duck, extinct from the New Jersey area since the late 1800’s. Presumably it also spent the winters bobbing along the coastline in between dives for mollusks.

Hopefully the diving and dabbling ducks we have now won’t be artistically posed in a display for their curtain call.


Three Labrador ducks, front one presumably in breeding plumage, at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by author, 2016.

Harbor Seals + Oodles of Birds

There’s a wealth of wildlife creeping and crawling and flapping and swimming and bobbing and sunning right under our noises.

We usually miss it, buried in cellphones or power walking around slow strollers or just noticing the pigeons.

The headliners were harbor seals, but for me the scene-stealers were the birds (loons in winter plumage! bubble-gum pink bills on long-tailed ducks! jumbo-size gulls! the adorable buffleheads! punk-rock mergansers! many more but I didn’t take notes!)

Thanks NYC Audubon for an awesome water ride around the harbor and opening my eyes to the awesome wildlife in the midst of our metropolis.


Photo by author, Hoffman Island, New York, January 2016. Formerly used for quarantine, now home to birds and winter harbor seals.

A Different George

As a child of veterinarians, I had an unusual relationship with animals. It was not atypical for us to stop the car and help a turtle cross the road, or for some bird to be nursed back to health from the confines a shoebox in the bathroom. I remember taking a juvenile red-tailed hawk to a wildlife rehabilitator with my father as a teenager. Once, my mom had me stop oncoming traffic while she wrapped a wounded groundhog trying to cross the road in a towel. But, I think my favorite animal rescue memory is George.

We were at a bustling, hectic outlet mall. There was a large pond with an arching walkway over it where people would feed the ducks, where we were walking through with giant mesh reusable bags, even before those were trendy.

My mom spotted a bedraggled duck under a bush, with his feathers pecked away, showing puckered skin, and scabby crusted eyes. She told me to watch for anyone passing by while she quickly emptied a bag, scooped the unresisting duck up, and tucked him away in a grocery bag. We bolted out of there, with my mom telling me not to look back and to calm down so I wouldn’t give us away.

I’m not sure when he became dubbed George, but we took him out to the barn shortly after his arrival. My mom fed him bagels soaked in Ensure and conjured other medical miracles to get him on the mend. He would come waddling up excitedly to see us, and would shake his beak and splatter Ensure everywhere while he ate.

At some point, we repurposed our old plastic turtle sandbox for his swimming pool. I loved seeing George dabbling and flapping and dunking himself underwater in his swimming pool. He was a beautiful mallard with the metallic green head and rich brown coloration. We tried to gradually move the pool out to the pond as he got stronger, but he would always come at a duck-sprint up to the barn whenever any of us ventured out, gabbing happily. He eventually found a few misfit duck friends on the pond and ventured up less and less, but could always be seen swimming and diving just under the surface, webbed feet sticking up out of the water.


George on the shore of the pond








George lived on our pond for five or so years, but one day didn’t make his regular sojourn to us. My mother found some feathers in the field bordering the pond, so it seems our resident fox finally got the best of George.

I think my strange, thrilling childhood taught me to keep an eye out for the miraculous animals all around, even in a city or the suburbs.

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