Monday, February 20, 2012

Meet the new Old Squaw, the Long-tailed Duck

I have been a passionate, if not methodical, birdwatcher since childhood. This very likely is an inherited trait, because my father and his father before him have all been likewise fascinated by our feathered friends.

I recall my father with his arm and forefinger extended, excitedly whispering, "Look, an Indigo Bunting!", as if he'd just spotted an African lion in the New Jersey woods.  My grandfather had a collection of birds' eggs so exquisite that it was given to a university after his passing in the early 80s.  But, among all the vast variety of beautiful birds that are around us....ducks have always been special some how.  If asked why that is true for me, I usually explain that they are rather the ne plus ultra of the bird world: they are among the strongest fliers (Blue-winged Teal can do 90 mph in level flight), they swim, they have an astonishing array of plumage designs.....and they 'QUACK', at least many of them do. The sound of a flock of ducks at rest is enough to make me smile: "...quack, quack, quaaaaack" like a bunch of seniors at a bingo game.

There are, however, a few ducks that I consider to be even more extraordinary than their peers. One is the Wood Duck, with plumage so stunning that it hardly seems possible that it's real.  Another is the Harlequin, also an absolute masterpiece of duck-design.  But, yesterday, I saw a small flock of a species that I have seen only twice in the previous 33 years: the Old Squaw.  Apparently, however, some birders in positions of influence felt that name was too politically incorrect and offensive to persist, so the Old Squaw has been re-named the Long-tailed Duck.  Okay, I get it.  Birders are not the kind of people who want to offend others.  Fine, but, I wish they were also a little more imaginative and creative. I mean, "Long-tailed", just doesn't sound like much, no big deal.  And then you see the actual duck!!  Designed in perfectly harmonious shades of grey and brown, with white and black accents....and with a jaunty curled-up tail of pin-feathers that looks like they belong on a British royal's hat. Surely, such a magnificent bird deserves a more august, more inspiring name than one that simply states the obvious. Maybe such beauty is just that which is beyond, they just settled for gross under-statement.

I do not really care.  But, I can tell you that when my binos took in the sight of eight of these stunning creatures bobbing gently just off the rocks of Portland Head, I felt a rush of joy that only the sheer power of Beauty, yes, with a capital 'B', can bring about.

And, here's a Harlequin...just so you can see for yourself what makes me stretch for superlative adjectives when I try to describe such amazing creatures.

My thanks to Kevin T. Karlson, who is one of the best duck photographers out there, in Cape May NJ.

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