“Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary-wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”
– Lewis Carroll
Salutations! A Bufflehead pops up through the wintry mist near the end of the Pier 49 pile field. In this February light, he looks like a black and white bathtub toy, but on a sunny day maroon and emerald iridescence plays around his head. Sheree West’s letter last month got me thinking about how often naming a bird starts with what it’s not, then progresses to what it might be, and hopefully concludes with what it is.
New Year’s Day, a Red-throated Loon, diving onto my West Village List (New Bird #83) illustrates the process. Out on my morning walk to Hudson River Park, a friend told me I had just missed a loon! No name-calling please. Darn. Almost immediately, the name-called splashed to the surface, looked around empty-beaked, and dove again. Got it.
Aside from being swell to have any loon two blocks from home, there were two likely species that it could be – Common Loon and Red-throated Loon. First off, knowing that loons do winter along the coast, and being confident that it was not a duck, not a gull, not a cormorant, I could safely say, “It is a loon!” Now for the trickier decision: Which is it? Confusingly, the Common isn’t any commoner and the Red-throated only has a red throat in the summer, so its name is no help now. Bigger/smaller, darker face/lighter face, bill held horizontally or more upright, necklace/no necklace, barred or chevroned back? These questions rattle around during each of the several seconds that the loon surfaces before his next Houdini escape. Red-throated wins.
A Blue Jay is only a Blue Jay. A Robin is a Robin is a Robin. Likewise for cardinals and crows. Though if a crow says, “Uh uh” sounding like it has a head cold, it’s a Fish Crow, not an American Crow. The up-cocked tail of a Mockingbird or a Catbird could leave you guessing. The big black and white geese are Canadas, and Brant are the smaller ones bickering. Female Mallards, Gadwalls and Black Ducks often still swim away from me unidentified.
A bagel, huge and doughy, jumps from under a nearby bench into my corgi Millie’s mouth! She is flabbergasted, no doubt, by the effrontery that I have trampled through four paragraphs about ducks without even an allusion to her. Triumphant to have clamped onto such a rotund treasure, the whites of her eyes mimic the voluptuous curves of this prize. Trying to take it away from Millie would only send me to the Emergency Room. Now I have to wait until she drops it so that I can give it a swift soccer kick out of the way. Ducky.
Diversion: Several weeks ago I was alerted to a tiny flock of Ruddy Ducks (West Village Bird #84!) – an easier sleuth. Rubber Ducky prototype, plastic blue bill, pert stand-up tail. The males in winter have a swashbuckling flash of white across their cheeks and don their namesake ruddiness to woo the ladies. A female Bufflehead could be confused with a Ruddy Duck, or, less likely, a plumper female Scaup or even a wayward Scoter.
Ha! Millie thought that I wasn’t paying attention and put down the bagel to chomp into it. A quick pull of the leash ends that frisbee of dough ruining her girlish figure. Millie weighs a pathetic yearning for her lost breakfast against a glare in my direction that, if she were a super-hero, would probably blow me to smithereens.
“How do you see so many birds?” people often ask. The smallest thing can be the tipoff that something is different. A duo of birds sally out from the top of a tree, returning to where they started. That’s it. Most birds, once they leave a place, fly somewhere else. Flycatchers do this yo-yo thing, but they’re only around in the summer. Titmice have crests like these guys but pick their food from branches, not out of the air. The chattering clinches it: Cedar Waxwings. The sun breaks through a cloud and the Waxwings’ velvety fawn breasts shimmer in the light.
Millie looks up. I look up too and grin. Our neighborhood Red-tailed Hawk is perched on the hawk-shaped finial of a West 11th Street water tower. It’s like Russian nesting dolls. A second hawk swerves in for a game of King of the Castle! Aerial cavorting ensues. Is this a romance? Just in time for Valentine’s Day?
“Aauff,” Millie has the last word, “Aauff!”