New York, New York

Growler I, 2009. Courtesy of Antti Laitinen and NETTIE HORN

Watching for the Buffleheads

New Yorkers may think they are surrounded by skyscrapers, but what’;s really around is ducks. Identifying the waterbirds of Manhattan.

I live on an island at the mouth of a mighty river. I live at the edge of a maze of estuaries, at the convergence of a bay and a sound, at a point where the Atlantic flyway narrows and millions of migratory birds funnel overhead in spring and fall. My front door is a few hundred yards from the water.

Or: My front door is on East 89th Street in Manhattan. My second-floor windows look into the center of the block: brick walls, air conditioners, a few trees, a sliver of sky. Sunlight doesn’t reach me directly—it bounces off the windows of the apartments across the way. I can’t see the sun rise or set.


* * *

I like the first version better. In the city it’s easy to ignore where you are in the landscape, which direction you’re facing. Easy to be resigned to pavement, scaffolding, traffic lights, garbage trucks; especially in winter, when lifting your head to look around means letting the wind slice down between your chin and your collar. But I refuse to surrender to the city. So whenever I can on these bright cold days, I’ve been looking for ducks.

Not just the well-fed mallards in Central Park, dabbling for Cheerios flung by toddlers whose mothers hover behind them, trilling, “Yes, sweetie! Just like Make Way For Ducklings!” They hang around all year. But plenty of their northern cousins, when the Canadian winter takes hold, fly no further south than here, where the coastal waters remain unfrozen. So I pull on my boots and a wool hat, sling a pair of binoculars across my chest, and cut across the top of Carl Schurz Park toward the path that curves northward along the East River. Last week, I went every day.

On Monday I hung over the railing at the bottom of the pram steps at 89th Street to see where the tide was on the seaweed-fringed rocks below, and there were eight brant geese at my feet. Branta bernicla: “branta” meaning burnt, for their charcoal coloring; “bernicla” for the goose-necked barnacles from which medieval naturalists thought they grew. (If the geese are here every year, yet no one has ever seen them hatch, another explanation is required. Migration hadn’t occurred to anyone yet.)

On milder days they dive for plants and small crustaceans, vanishing with a plip, popping up again like corks. Their bills, when they untuck them, are sky blue.Brant geese are similar to Canada geese, but not as ubiquitous—I put Canada geese in the same category as the gulls, but brant geese make my heart beat a little faster. They have stubbier necks and no white cheek patch; instead, a narrow slash of white under the chin like a streak of forgotten shaving cream. When I saw them, they were nibbling algae off rotting pilings, two of which were swaying in the current like scissor blades, adding suspense when a goose stretched its neck between them.

South of the pier at 107th Street, 18 ruddy ducks were resting in the sun. Tiny, round and brown, stiff tails sticking up behind, bills tucked backward under wings, apparently asleep, but through binoculars I could see them blinking. Scores of them congregate each winter in the corners made by piers and seawall, paddling with one foot to hold their place in the flotilla, tucking the other up to stay warm. On milder days they dive for plants and small crustaceans, vanishing with a plip, popping up again like corks. Their bills, when they untuck them, are sky blue.

Tuesday was unusually warm. The mountains of slush along the path were shrinking in the sun, falling in on themselves with a faint crunch, like a phantom footstep. The wind was gusting, cat’s paws darkening the water. At the broad basin near 96th Street, an unfamiliar duck was fraternizing with the gulls. A brown head with blushing cheeks, a scruffy crest, a long straight bill, a light breast and throat. A flurry of dark and light as it rose in the water to shake off its wings. I tried to memorize its plumage, its profile, its behavior. It preened and flapped and dabbled, and then it dove. I counted. Thirty seconds. A really good swimmer.

That night I wrote to a friend who has been watching birds in the five boroughs for decades. He made the identification immediately—my mystery duck was a female red-breasted merganser. Google Images provided instant confirmation. (Technologically, now is a good time to take up birding.) There she was, up close on my screen, looking just as unkempt as I remembered.

And there she was again Wednesday morning, after a hard freeze had petrified the slush piles. It was a completely different feeling watching her now: I had read up on the habits of mergansers, I had joined the ranks of Those Who Know What a Merganser Is. I resisted the urge to wave, and hid my goofy grin behind my binoculars.

Scanning toward the Ward’s Island footbridge, I saw flashes of white bobbing along the seawall—the brant geese like to graze on the algae there, but today they were up-ending, each in turn, their white bottoms blazingly bright in the sun. It’s hard to hold binoculars steady when you’re giggling. Bob, bob, flash. Tee-hee. The wake of a passing police boat sent rollers slashing against the seawall, and the geese drew back for a moment. Billows of silt rose from the river bottom.

I live on an island at the edge of a maze of estuaries, at the convergence of a bay and a sound, a place full of waterbirds, even in the dead of winter.The buffleheads are my favorite. There was a group of seven of them on Thursday, just south of the pilings near 110th Street. Four males and three females, the males as always looking overdressed in their sleek black and white plumage, the females dowdy by comparison, as if they didn’t belong at the same party. “Bufflehead” comes from buffalo, for their bulbous heads, especially when the males fluff out their feathers, but nothing else about them is oversized—they’re the smallest diving ducks in North America. One male drifted away from the group, diving for long stretches. Once he reappeared just inches from the tailfeathers of a gull swimming nearby; the gull gave a little start and twitched its backside around in a hurry. The buffleheads took off in unison and removed themselves to mid-channel, a black and white cloud of flickering wings.

Mallard pairs had staked out stretches of my walk; I saw them every day in the same places. They’re the most familiar ducks on the river, but the males’ iridescent heads are so impossibly green in the sun that you marvel at them all the same. Most of them paddled away as I approached, but one pair drew nearer, looking up at me hopefully—had they spent time in Central Park? On Friday there was a pair in a new place, north of the 107th Street pier. But wait—they were gadwalls, not mallards. The female looked mallardish, but the male was different, with dove-gray feathers, paler at the tips, over a black rump. Understated and elegant, like a morning coat. I love the word “gadwall”; it sounds Dickensian, the name of a prosperous man of business, paddling about on the social pond. But so far my efforts to discover its origin have been fruitless.

The pair swam purposefully north against the current, quite close together, the female leading. I walked alongside them, our pace roughly the same. Their destination was a forest of pilings at 116th Street, where there’s always a gathering of gulls, and sometimes a cormorant. The gadwalls stopped there and settled down to feed.

I kept walking, inland now, over the footbridge spanning the FDR Drive at 120th Street and then west to Pleasant Avenue. A church, a school, tenements, a bodega, a community garden buried under dirty snow—my stroll with the gadwalls might have happened in another life. There was nothing to connect this street to the tides and tailfeathers a block away. A gull wheeled overhead and cried, eeeeee-ah ee-ah ee-ah ee-ah, and for a second I felt dizzy, trying to reconcile the sound with the scene in front of me.

It was late, so I hopped on the Second Avenue bus to go back downtown. It felt like finding a subway station on a country road. My body was sitting on a bus, but my head was full of ducks, and my binoculars were digging into my ribs. My legs were pleasantly achy, as if I’d been skiing or hiking.

I live on an island at the edge of a maze of estuaries, at the convergence of a bay and a sound, a place full of waterbirds, even in the dead of winter. I’ve made the acquaintance of several, and every walk holds the promise of meeting something new. But when I’m done looking for them, I go home to 89th Street, and if I’m really tired, I can order takeout.