By Keith Michael
I throw a (small) handful of kibble across the floor.
Millie takes up her cue to hit the boards for her famed “corgi kibble dance.” The Prelude: Two rapid spins. Act I: Pick up only one kibble, toss it in the air, pursue (into a far corner if necessary). Act II: Methodically scuttle kibble to kibble. Finale: Check the circuit twice, maybe thrice, to confirm no kibble has been left uneaten.
This ritual is my guilty peace offering because I am leaving for the day. Spoiler alert: This article takes a train out of the West Village, Millie will be snoozing while you read, and no, I didn’t see “The Duck.”
Back in October, a Mandarin duck appeared briefly in Central Park, then disappeared. He had unmarked bands on his leg—a likely escapee from someone’s private estate collection. No one was claiming him. If you live in New York, and haven’t heard about the Mandarin duck by now, perhaps your name is Rip Van Winkle. Keep reading to wake up.
The Mandarin duck is a spectacularly decorative species and this male was in spectacularly dandyish plumage: orange fringed snood, fancy white eye-liner, lace-edged purple ascot, a blue-green tailcoat, and gaudy russet “sails” that stand up on his back. In every way a “looker”. Native to East Asia, remarkably, the Mandarin duck’s closest relative is the North American Wood Duck. On any other day, the also spectacularly plumaged male Wood Duck would take center stage, but not the day the Mandarin duck was standing in the wings. A new star was born.
Then, on November 1st, this special duck made a media savvy comeback on The Pond at the southeast corner of Central Park. Friends punctuated that day with texts, e-mails, and Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter alerts: “Have you seen ‘The Duck’?” A visual salve during the pre- and post-election blues, hundreds of New Yorkers, alerted by a New York Times article, flocked to the banks of The Pond, waiting in line to get the requisite selfie of this photogenic technicolor arriviste.
I hadn’t had a free hour all that week to rush to the park, and even though Mandy had gone missing again by Friday the 9th, by Saturday I was deserting Millie to make my pilgrimage in the hope of a reappearance of “The Duck”.
Getting off the train at the Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan, I made a duck-line for The Pond. Not immediately seeing a crush of birders and rubberneckers anywhere, I did a loop around this Vaux and Olmstead masterpiece: over the Gapstow Bridge, by the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, down the path through the hidden cove with its picturesque waterfall, along the south bank. I was not alone. Indiscriminately circling was a host of binocular-clad naturalists, and photographers with unusually long lens. A fair number of tourists seemed to have their phones out and poised as well—everyone scanning the reeds, rocks, and overhanging branches for the elusive duck.
I finally sat down on a bench with a view of the new crop of construction sprouting from 57th Street to wait, noting the activity of the avian locals: a cluster of Dark-eyed Juncos flittering nearby, a Downy Woodpecker working the reeds across the path, a Red-bellied Woodpecker clucking somewhere high in a tree behind me, a smattering of Grackles flying over, and a Blue Jay, heard above the hum of Fifth Avenue traffic, doing what Blue Jays do—loudly jaying!
Almost imperceptibly, I begin to notice a vortex forming, drawing in the circling masses like floating leaves to a drain. First, hearing an undercurrent of “The Duck! The Duck!” then, from the promontory of a rock, a young girl proudly proclaims to the gathering throng, “It’s NOT ‘The Duck!’” Far from slowing the tide, her derisive pronouncement seems to swell the stream. I too get out my camera and drift toward the edge of The Pond.
There in the shallows is, in fact, a handsome drake plying the bread trade thrown his way. But even though he’s a stunning bird with intricate white crosshatching, more colors than in the rainbow, a street-smart head bob as he swims, and a feisty New Yorkish manner, he is NOT “The Duck”, but instead, the Mandarin’s nearest relative, our own lovely everyday Wood Duck.
Caught unaware, these fellows are quite skittish, but this guy seems to relish the spotlight of high noon. There is still a gaggle of photographers (myself included) snapping away with their long lenses, not knowing, or not caring, that this is NOT “The Duck”.
I hope the Mandarin duck does return. I’ll be there to bask in his misplaced beauty.
Postscript: The Mandarin duck DID return to The Pond, and I did return to bask in his beauty. Maybe as you read this, he will still be there. Just GO!
For more information about New York City WILD! nature outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow Instagram @newyorkcitywild