Duck, Duck, Goose! (And Heron)

This is a pretty obvious statement, but perhaps the best books are those that leave deep and enduring impressions—books that unforgettably teach and shape or take the imagination to far off places.  Better still are those books that, in their richness, offer new discoveries (that were always there) as the reader grows and changes over the course of life.

The Bible, I think, is the best example of this sort of book.  It contains history and narrative, law, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, parables, letters (called epistles), and even romance.  From its literary depth wells up a fountain of living (lifesaving) water that is ready to quench the thirsty soul—whenever, wherever, and whoever.

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I am going on record as saying that no other book is on par with the Bible, but there are certainly great books that shape and change lives or that grow with the reader as the reader matures.  As obscure as this may sound, American Birds, by Roland C. Clement, has been one such book for me.

Originally published in 1973 by the National Audubon Society (and Bantam Books), American Birds is a color guide of North American birds in their natural habitats with explanations of habits, behaviors, and identifying characteristics. I acquired my copy in 1978.  I was only eight years old at the time, so I really only looked at the pictures.  Over the next few years, I consulted the book whenever I needed to draw or describe the state bird of whatever state I was studying.  The book has been packed up and hauled across state lines several times since then.  I have rarely opened the book in the last twenty years or so, but it has also never occurred to me to donate, discard, or otherwise ditch it.

A Northern Mockingbird

A Northern Mockingbird (Durham, NC)

A few weeks ago, I was in the Walgreens parking lot, of all places, and a bird flew out of a hedge and perched itself atop a tree stake.  I snapped a few pictures with my iPhone before it flew back into the hedge. I wasn’t sure what kind of bird it was. I knew that my Dad, who is a bit of a bird watcher, would know; but it occurred to me that I, too, could learn to identify birds.  (Isn’t it a matter of practice and experience?) So when I got home, I pulled American Birds off the shelf and discovered that my mystery bird was a Mockingbird.  The Mockingbird’s identifying characteristic?  “[I]t perches conspicuously.” [1] Indeed.

It was rather exhilarating to identify a bird, so I pushed past my “picture book mentality” and began to actually read American Birds.  (Yes, I’m a late bloomer.)  I read about how the pastime of getting to know a variety of birds is called “birding,” and that it is possible for a beginning birder to see as many as 100 different species of birds in a single day!  In birding terms, this is called “breaking 100.” [2]

Acquiring this basic birding knowledge got me thinking about life and about appreciating the natural world that is around me on a deeper level than just, “Oh, isn’t that pretty!” Perhaps part of caring for and protecting God’s creation involves really seeing it and understanding it as well.

With that notion in mind, I decided to start with the ducks. I’ve been around ducks all my life, it seems.  I grew up about a mile from a county park where ducks and geese were aplenty.  So for me, they became very commonplace creatures.  But in reality, there is much that can be learned about them if one is interested.  I decided last week to get interested, and here are just a few of the very basic things that I learned.

Ducks, geese, and swans are referred to as waterfowl.  There are other groups of water birds, but they typically fall outside the classification of waterfowl.  For example, beautiful herons are considered wading birds.

Ducks are often grouped, (and thus more easily identified), by their behaviors.  Some are dabblers, while other are divers, whistlers, perchers as so on.  Typically, the ducks you might see at the local park are dabblers—ducks that put their heads in the water and tip their tails skyward as they feed.

The Culberson Asiatic Arboretum at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham, NC, has a well-stocked Garden Pond of acquired water birds.  I have yet to capture all of the different varieties, (or to do so in fine detail), but here is a start with shots taken mostly from just my iPhone.  (You can click on the photos to enlarge them.)

This female Northern Pintail is a dabbling duck--dipping her head in to feed and tipping her tail skyward.

This female Northern Pintail is a dabbling duck–dipping her head in to feed and tipping her tail skyward.

A male Mallard looks on as a female "dabbles" in the shallow waters for food.

A male Mallard looks on as a female “dabbles” in the shallow waters for food.

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These waterfowl hail from various corners of the globe: The Red-Crested Pochard (left) is native to Europe and Asia; the Mandarin Duck (top) is indigenous to China; and the Canada Goose is native to the United States.

The Barnacle Goose is native to Arctic Islands of Northern Asia and Greenland.

The Barnacle Goose is native to Arctic Islands of Northern Asia and Greenland. On the bank across the pond, (top left), are Canada Geese.

And for the grand finale, I caught this amazing glimpse of nature yesterday! After a week of rain, the sun came out and I trotted over to the Gardens with my Nikon only to discover that I had left my memory card at home! As I sat dejectedly on a stone bench, a Great Blue Heron, (note its trailing blue mating plume in the picture on the left), walked up along the pond’s edge, intently eyeing the water.  With a loud whoosh! of feathers and wings wide spread, he dove toward the water and scooped out a fish! I got my iPhone up just in time to capture the picture on the right.

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A Great Blue Heron takes its prey with a lightening-quick thrust of the neck.

I am now inspired to get more and better pictures of all the various water birds at the Gardens—and elsewhere.  No doubt it will take patience, timing, and constancy.

When American Birds was published some thirty years ago, 8,900 species of birds had been identified.  Today there are over 10,000 known species. With the passing of years, we learn more and more about the world that we live in, (although I would caution that all information should be evaluated with a degree of discernment); and it is exciting to me that as long as I live, I can always be learning, exploring, and enjoying God’s amazing creation.


[1] Clement, Roland C. American Birds, p. 115.
[2] Ibid, p. 6.

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