Tag Archives: diving ducks

On retreat: Autumn watch

Wareham, Mass. I was sitting at the breakfast table talking to some ministers whom I hadn’t seen in a while, when Rachel, the program chair for this retreat, came around and said the morning’s program was about to begin. The other ministers filed in to hear the rest of the presentation by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. Even though I strongly disagreed with Dowd’s presentation last night, where he described an eco-theology grounded in a grand narrative of the universe, I felt that I should keep an open mind and go hear more. Then I thought to myself:– Would I rather sit indoors and listen to someone talk theology, or would I rather go outdoors to take a long walk? I went quietly upstairs to get my coat and binoculars, and slipped out the back door of the retreat center.

Cloudy and cold this morning, a real mid-autumn day. Birds filled the bushes along the edge of the retreat center’s lawn: Gold-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, catbirds, cardinals, and even a Hermit Thrush. I bushwhacked to the edge of the little estuary. As I came down to the edge of the salt marsh, a Great Blue Heron squawked, crouched, and leapt into the air, tucking his neck back and slowly pulling his long legs up against his body. Some of the trees surrounding the salt marsh were already bare of leaves; one or two maples still covered in brilliant red leaves; the white oaks shone dull gold in the subdued light; a few trees were still green. The tide was quite high, and I skirted the high water through the salt marsh hay. One high bush blueberry, a bush about five feet high growing right at the edge of the marsh, was covered in deep, glowing red leaves; I only noticed that small bush because the trees around it were already bare and grey.

After a long walk, I wound up on the Wareham town beach. A fisherman stood at the far end of the beach, where the sand ends in a little spit sticking out into an estuary winding up through extensive salt marshes.

“Catching anything?” I said.

“Not today,” he said. “Caught a little striper yesterday.”

I said that was pretty good; it’s late to catch a striper this far north.

He was feeling talkative, and we chatted idly for a few minutes. “What are you looking for?” he said, noticing the binoculars hanging around my neck.

“Ducks,” I said. “The ducks should be here by now. But I’m not really seeing any. Maybe because it’s been so warm, and they’re just not moving down onto their wintering grounds yet.”

“Yeah, that’s what they’re saying about the stripers this year,” he said. “They should be gone by now, but it’s still warm so they’re staying up here.”

Every year, the story is a little different. The fall migrants generally move on at about the same time, but a Hermit Thrush might stay a little later than usual. The striped bass run south, but one year that might leave a little earlier or later than another year. Some years a few maple trees hold their leaves a little longer, or a blueberry bush turns a particularly bright red. The same story is told year after year, and it’s always the same but always different. That’s the only grand narrative I care about, a grand narrative that’s not told in words.

Eagle Island

The weather hadn’t cooperated all week: fog, wind, rain storm. Some of us had hoped to paddle out to Eagle Island, but the weather had made it impossible.

Tonight at dinner, I realized that finally the weather was perfect: calm, no big swells coming into Saco Bay from the Atlantic, no chance of fog. I asked around, and Rebecca, who is from Arizona, said she’d be willing to paddle out with me. Just as we were about to carry the canoe down to the beach, Jon came walking along. He’s been waiting for the weather to break all week.

“We’re going out on the bay,” I said to him. He looked at his wife. “Go,” she said, “if you don’t, you’ll be miserable.” He ran and grabbed his kayak, and walked down with us.

We walked way down the beach to meet the low tide. We waded out, floating the canoe until the water was up over our ankles, then jumped in and started paddling.

About halfway out, a big fish jumped completely out of the water, and fell back in with a splash. It must have been four to six feet long. As we paddled along, Jon laughed and said, “I needed this.”

The water started getting darker. The sand ended, and the bottom dropped away to deep rocks. We passed a few lobster buoys. The island was getting closer: dark jagged rocks, long points or spurs exposed by the low tide, little specks of birds perched here and there, the highest part of the island covered with green (nettles and grasses) above the reach of the highest tides.

We got close enough to see rafts of eider swimming and diving around the island. They flew away when we got too close. Jon saw a seal slip into the water from off one of the rocky points.

Great Black-backed Gulls seemed to control most of the island, with a few Herring Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants. We could hear the keening cries of the baby gulls, saying, Feed us.

We slipped around one of the points of the island, out from the lee side. Low swells from the Atlantic slowly raised and lowered our boats. It’s a lonely, rugged little island.

The sun was getting low. We didn’t have time to go all the way around the island, so we turned around. “What a magical place,” I said.

On the way back, a Common Tern dove down close to our boats, pulled back four feet above the water, hovered for thirty seconds, and flew low over our heads. “Wow,” said Jon. “Amazing. Imagine being able to see that.”

The setting sun was off our starboard bow. Further to the right, thunderheads were building up over Casco Bay, the next bay to the north. We talked about other outdoor trips we had gone on, until at last we rode some waves in to the beach.

Rebecca and I put the canoe on my car, and Jon dumped the water out of his kayak. We looked at each other. “That was great.”

Spring watch

Out to Pope’s Island on Sunday for a walk. I saw very few ducks and waterfowl on the harbor. Two months ago, I could stand on Pope’s Island and see hundreds of ducks, loons, and geese; Sunday I saw just two pairs of Bufflehead and one pair of Common Goldeneye; all the rest have left for the season, heading north to wherever they breed.

We always talk about what we gain in spring — flowers, green leaves, warmth — but spring means the end of things too. It’s a poignant moment for me when the trees fully leaf out, and suddenly you can no longer see things you saw all winter. Every year when this happens I can’t help thinking to myself, I can’t wait until the leaves fall off the trees again so I can regain that sense of wide open space.

But spring has been on hold for the past couple of weeks. It’s gotten cool again, with the light snow last Wednesday, and temperatures below freezing the last few nights. The flowers that began to bloom in those warm days two weeks ago are still in bloom; the banks of forsythia bushes along Route 18 are still just barely washed with a haze of a few yellow flowers. I love these cold nights and cool days when spring pauses in its rush towards summer.

How to stay outdoors after dark

This afternoon, I drove out to Concord. In the fields of the old prison farm, a Greater White-Fronted Goose was supposedly hanging around with the geese that usually live there; I wanted to see this resident of the arctic.

There stood the goose, looking odd with its orange bill. I looked at it for a while, and realized I had a little time before dark, so I drove over to the national wildlife refuge a few miles away. I climbed the observation tower there. As I got up onto the observation deck, a boy’s voice said, “Are you a birder?”

I said, “Well, sort of.” The boy was about 12. He was with a man who had binoculars and never used them, but just seemed to be looking at the scenery.

He said, “You see those ducks out there? –what are they? You can see them in the telescope.”

But I already had my binoculars to my eyes, and could see them well enough to say, “Well, they’re probably Ring-necked Ducks.” Then I looked through the big telescope mounted on the observation deck, the same one that was there when I was a boy. I said why I was sure they were Ring-neck Ducks, with that white streak in front of the wings, and the distinctive shape of their heads.

The boy nodded wisely. “Yeah,” he said.

We talked about birds a little bit; the Red-winged Blackbirds were back; ducks were on the move. I asked if he had seen the Greater White-fronted Goose. Behind me, I could feel the man politely rolling his eyes, the way Carol does when she has to endure listening to people talk about birds. The boy was pretty excited to hear about the goose, though he hid it. I told the boy where to see it, but, as is often the case for someone that age, he didn’t have a strong sense of how to get from one place to another. So I told the man, who knew where I meant. The man had a faint European accent; the boy did not.

“We better tell your mother about it,” said the man, which either meant that the boy’s mother was a birder, or this was a ploy to get the boy down off the observation tower.

“Just FYI,” said the boy to the man, as they began walking down the steep stairs, “a Greater White-Fronted Goose is not something you see every day.”

“Not around here, that’s for sure,” I said in parting. The man smiled, a little tightly, but didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t realize that goose had probably flown down here from Greenland.

I wandered over the dike between the two main pools of the refuge, well behind the boy and the two adults. I don’t think his mother was a passionate birder, because they didn’t seem to stop and look at the Northern Shoveler. I took my time, saw a lot of birds, and wound up getting to my car just as the man was trying to get the boy back down off the observation tower and into their car. “Come on,” the man said in his faint accent, “we have to go now.”

Like the boy, I didn’t want to leave. But I had to get back to New Bedford, and with the light fading fast I no longer had the excuse of staying to look at birds. I slid into my car, started the engine and turned on the headlights. When I pulled out, the boy still wasn’t in the car. Maybe he was doing the right thing; so what if it’s too dark to look at birds any more; so what if he was annoying two adults; any excuse to stay outdoors longer.

Maybe I’m getting too responsible.

Ice out

Carol and I walked around Fresh Pond in Cambridge this afternoon. It must have been 70 degrees; sunny, too.

The ice is off about half of Fresh Pond. A stiff breeze was blowing across the pond, and on the windward side, you could hear the ice crunching along the edge of the pond. We watched it for a while: the wind pushed the ice sheet against the shore, pushing it up onto land, little pieces of ice breaking off.

Already I’ve noticed there are many fewer ducks and loons on New Bedford harbor than a month ago, for the waterfowl are beginning to move back inland. No waterfowl yet on Fresh Pond, but soon they will move off their wintering grounds along the coast and stop here on their way to their breeding grounds.


The snow moved in late this morning. At a quarter past eleven, Carol looked out the window of our apartment and exclaimed, “Snow flurries!” I went out for a walk fifteen minutes later, and the snow flurries had settled into a heavy snow fall; I got to the waterfront and I could not see the town of Fairhaven across the harbor; I got halfway across the bridge and the ground was white, by the time I returned home, and hour later, there was an inch of snow on the ground.

The visibility was poor, but I could see the usual waterfowl on the water, and the usual gulls flying overhead. The ducks never seem bothered by rain or snow, only by high winds that force them to seek refuge on the lee side of the harbor and islands. The gulls don’t seem bothered by snow, rain, or high winds.

Not only did the birds remain unfazed by the snow, but we have gone far enough through winter that humans didn’t seem bothered by it either. The traffic rushed over the bridge and across Pope’s Island the same as usual; the only difference being that the tires made a different sound because of the snow that had been melted by road salt. And I passed half a dozen pedestrians, whereas we often see no pedestrians at all on our walks over to Fairhaven. It was almost as if the weather brought out more pedestrians, more people who wanted a chance to walk through the falling snow.


In the late afternoon, I drove down to the hurricane barrier for a walk. A damp chilling breeze blew down the Achushnet River, and I walked along the outer side of the barrier to stay out of the wind. Out of the wind, the day was pleasant even if it was gray. The Martha’s Vineyard ferry went out through the barrier, scattering ducks and gulls as it picked up speed once in the outer harbor.

On the walk back, I walked down on the windward side of the hurricane barrier. The tide was quite low, low enough that you could walk out to little Palmer Island. As I got onto the island, over a hundred Brant took off together and flew low over the water up the harbor. Ducks were scattered everywhere over the water; a couple of Long-tailed Ducks bobbed in the water up near the Palmer Island lighthouse. The interior of the north end of the island was covered with trash; there was not a square foot that wasn’t covered with trash: a computer monitor without any glass, a square plastic bin, a chunk of foam padding, a worn two-by-four with rusty nails, styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, trash that can’t be identified. In the junipers near the lighthouse, half a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers flew about cheerfully eating juniper berries. Invasive bittersweet and phragmites, dominated the vegetation of the upper end of the island, along with poison sumac; brambles and thorns grew here and there; a small remnant of salt hay grass clung to the east side of the island.

I scrambled off the island before the tide could cover over the mud and sand that connects it to the hurricane barrier; passed a dead horseshoe crab, stepped on a squishy bit of yellow foam, curnched over broken shells and bits of broken glass. I was cold, and hurrying back to the car, but something made me pause and look at one waterbird through the binoculars: a Barrow’s Goldeneye, close enough to see every detail; an uncommon duck that I just didn’t expect to see in the heart of the city.

Winter vista

Walked across to Fairhaven this afternoon. High thin clouds had already covered the sky; the harbor and the sky were both gray. I was hoping to see sea ducks on the harbor, but aside from a few Buffleheads I saw few waterbirds. On the way back from Fairhaven, I stopped at the north end of Pope’s Island, stood for a while on the expanse of asphalt parking lot between Fairhaven Hardware and Dunkin Donuts. Through the binoculars I could see a raft of sea ducks far up in the harbor, black-and-white specks bobbing in the water almost to Interstate 195. I moved the binoculars to the old brick Fairhaven Mills building, nearly a hundred years old. Home Depot wants to bulldoze it and erect another big-box retail store that will last maybe twenty-five years before it has to be demolished. Carol and I snuck up to the top floor of the mill one afternoon last month, imagining what it would be like to have an office, or a store, or an apartment in that big, vast space; the tall windows with their views of the Acushnet River and the harbor, the skylights giving the space an open roomy feeling. The New Bedford City Council quickly voted to give Home Depot the permit to destroy; they have witnessed how the mallification of North Dartmouth sucked the life out of downtown New Bedford, and they must have thought, if we’re going to suck the life out of the downtown at least we can keep the tax dollars in the city. I moved the binoculars down the the wetlands sandwiched between the interstate and the harbor. With the binoculars, I could see that Phragmites, or Common Reeds, dominated the wetlands; a non-native species that offers little to the rest of the ecosystem while pushing out native flora and fauna; thus degrading the overall ecosystem. The dull tan stand of reeds offered little contrast to the dreary gray waters of the harbor. On late December days like this it’s hard to feel much hope. No leaves on the trees to soften the cityscape; no falling snow to gently cover the worst of the city’s ugliness; just dreary gray sky, dreary gray water, no sea ducks to watch diving, the only people in sight stay mostly hidden inside their cars, the only sound the rush of traffic on U.S. Route 6 behind me. Whatever hopelessness I feel is probably just a cold coming on, or a reaction to the short, dark days. These short days wear on you, we have a long way to go before spring comes, but at least by this time of year the days can only get longer. Then five Common Mergansers swam out of their hiding place among the docks of the deserted marina to my left, swimming away from me, warily looking back to see what I would do; the dull reddish heads of the females appearing bright against the grayness of the day. When they got a little farther out, they began to dive, staying under for long periods of time as they hunted for food, or perhaps dived just for the sheer joy of it. I stood watching them for a while until the damp cold sunk in. I walked briskly towards home. By the time I got there, I was warm and far more cheerful.

Merry New Bedford Christmas…

After church today, Carol said we had to go down to the hurricane barrier to look at the harbor. We got down there, and walked to the end of the hurricane barrier and back before the clouds moved in.

The whole fishing fleet is in for the holiday, and through the binoculars we could see them lined up three and four deep along the docks on the Fairhaven side and the New Bedford side of the harbor. The inner harbor was sheltered from the light southerly breeze, and was almost dead flat in places. No boat traffic at all; we saw a seal lolling on the surface right in the middle of the main shipping channel. That was the highlight of our walk for Carol.

Needless to say, I was most excited by the many birds that were out. Carol was very tolerant as I kept stopping to look through the binoculars: “Look!” I’d say, stopping yet again. “Horned Grebes! And a Common Loon just dove under the surface!” There were lots of Buffleheads, and Black Ducks, Scaup, Goldeneye, Long-tailed Ducks, a Mallard or two, Common Mergansers. On the way back, I got a good close look at six Brant, the closest I’ve ever gotten to these small geese. That, of course, was the highlight of our walk for me.

We’ve never seen the harbor so quiet. A delightful moment on this Christmas day. And Merry Christmas to you, wherever you are!