By Susan Hand Shetterly
I couldn’t walk them blindfolded, but I’ve followed the paths to the head of the bay near my house for so many years that I could probably, blindfolded, tell you where we were if you stood me at almost any point. At least, I like to think so. I choose one or the other to go visit the ducks at mid-tide in late fall, winter, and early spring, taking the path up through the woods, then down the tidy steps to the eastern cove, or I cross a neighbor’s field to the ledges.
Sometimes, ice has sealed the water in, but if not, as the tide advances, pooling against the layers of schist and lifting into the dead stalks of the spartinas, the ducks are out along the bay. The bottom is shallow and muddy here, with tangles of seaweeds and clumps of barnacles and periwinkles around the rocky edges, and in the bowl of the bay are mud snails and worms, small arthropods, soft-shell clams, and darting fish that the tide brings in. The ducks that like this sort of thing are the black ducks, the red-breasted mergansers and a few hooded mergansers, the buffleheads, and the common goldeneyes.
I’ve come not to discover something unusual, although that would be exciting, but rather to welcome the ducks I think I know. What is more beautiful than a late-fall low tide just before dark, the purplish light from the sky glinting off a mudflat, and black ducks, their dark shapes moving like miniature buffaloes across a shortgrass prairie, gleaning all that small life we don’t often see?
Wild ducks — wild animals of all sorts — fire the human imagination.
Last fall, as the days grew short, I waited for the buffleheads and the goldeneyes, small and medium-size black-and-white ducks, to return. We’d had a lot of bad news from every corner of the world, and if I’d been told then that these ebullient diving ducks had taken off from their summer nesting ponds to the north and vanished into thin air, I might have believed it. The winter would have been drained of an essential joy. But there they were at last, on the cusp of serious cold, as busy and hungry and buoyant as ever.
Together with hooded and common mergansers, they are our only diving ducks that nest in trees. I’ve never seen these ducks in summer, but sometimes my imagination follows them along a green, shady course of a Canadian river, zigzagging with the oxbows. Or I imagine a bufflehead hen flying along the banks of a remote pond, hunting for a tree with the nesting hole of a flicker, or a goldeneye hen hunting for pileated woodpecker nesting holes. I’ve read that these ducks can squeeze themselves into spaces in trees that you can just fit your hand through, sideways. I hardly recognize them like this. They are more than I thought I knew: freshwater birds, tree-nesting birds, shy and secretive and very fast.
Today, it is March fever out on the bay. No secrets here. Nothing shy going on out here. The male goldeneyes churn the water around the hens, displaying their puffy green-tinted heads, gesturing like jesters. The exquisite bufflehead males are dashing at each other, raising wakes in a frenzy of mating readiness, preparing for a trip to a place so unlike this bay.
Wild ducks — wild animals of all sorts — fire the human imagination. Where do they go from here? How do they behave when we no longer see them? And we pursue them in our thoughts and sometimes in our dreams as our lives embrace a wider, wilder understanding.