You will remember that I’ve mentioned the mistakes of beginning birders? The mistakes of looking at beginners’ field guides? Looking only at breeding plumage? Looking only at male plumage?And remember my confessions of knowing such mistakes: it is because I’ve committed them, over and over again.
Let’s just say that quite a few years ago (less than ten), I took a first drive to the Freeport area to better acquaint myself with waterfowl. I didn’t have a camera. I didn’t have an experienced birder by my side. I didn’t have the field guide that I now carry. I hadn’t learned how NOT to look at a field guide when IN the field, and how TO look at a field guide when NOT in the field.But that long ago day is a wonderful memory that I’ll hold dear, as long as memory allows. I’d prepared for the day by researching multiple birding spots in areas with roadside ponds. And so I mostly spent the day close to my car, pulling just off the road to walk beside these ponds.
I’d quietly get out of the car with binoculars and daypack’s field guide, and be greeted by waterfowl turning their backsides to me and swimming away. I needed to calm my nerves, even if I couldn’t calm theirs. I first focused on the familiar; I sighted the herons, egrets, ibis and such from my beloved Brazos Bend. I was doing pretty well; and so I started focusing on waterfowl.I knew a few, but I kept seeing these ducks that I didn’t recognize from my night-time field guide studies. Standing road-side, I’d look through my binoculars, note the obviously plain markings of these ducks, and too quickly flip through the pages of my guide. Nothing matched. And of course, I was ONLY looking at male breeding plumage pictures without realizing that I was ONLY looking at male breeding plumage. I spent an entire day and never identified this particular duck.
The day ended, and I headed home, mostly thrilled with the new lifers and new experiences. But the unknown duck bothered me. I was seeing too many for it to be rare.After the cold blustery day, I was ready for a hot bath and a good bit of hot food. Tired, clean and hungry, I reached out with the familiar movement of right hand to refrigerator door. And there it was; right before me, eye-level height. The refrigerator magnet a sibling had given me the Christmas before.
For the last 300-plus days this small magnet showed me two mated waterfowl. One duck was the central focus of the magnet, sporting a bright burnt-red body with black crown and white face—nothing familiar to my experience. And just beside and slightly behind it (on the magnet) appeared its mate; mostly a drab brown with a soft-white facial stripe. Good grief! It was the spitting image of my day’s unknown bird! Right there, on my refrigerator, was my day’s puzzle.I grabbed my strongest over-the-counter reading glasses and in teeny tiny print, bottom left corner of the magnet it said: Ruddy Duck.
The next morning I went out and bought a better field guide. I looked up Ruddy Duck, and then and there I was introduced to Ms. Ruddy Duck and her juvenile offspring. I laughed so hard I almost cried.With my new “Sibley Guide to Birds” a brave new world opened up to me. I learned the importance of studying field guides with breeding, non-breeding, female and juvenile plumage (not to mention range and cross-breed and other such variations).
And now I commonly see Ms. Ruddy in the fall and winter months. Sometimes she is alone, but more often she has at least one sister, or gal-pal or juvenile at her side. And occasionally I note the mister, in his non-breeding plumage that seems of no interest to her at all.
And I always laugh to myself, and AT myself, for this memory that no one else knows. Until now.And the magnet? It is still there, eye level on my refrigerator.
Ruddy Duck photo, from last week’s daytrip to Brazoria NWR; no adult males in sight: