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Divers and Dabblers

Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”  Lewis Thomas

Red-breasted Merganser, All About Birds, Macaulay Library, Cornell University. Ian Davies

Two types of ducks occur: divers and dabblers. The dabblers, compensating for their undignified manner of feeding, oftentimes have plumage more colorfully adorned, at least the males. With their tails up in the air exposed to the world and their heads and upper body submerged, their short legs scramble ceaselessly to maintain their awkward situation while they pick away in the summer and breeding time at insects, larvae, small crabs, worms and the like, often turning up rocks at the bottom of their shallow feeding grounds to dig out their supper. In the winter, dabblers seek the seeds of aquatic plants, feeding in a peculiar surface nibbling[i]. Mallards, and various teals, widgeons and shovelers are among these beautiful, but humble, ducks. Strong flyers and vocal, and because they usually inhabit shallow calm waters, they may be more familiar to us.[ii] Friendly, social ducks, but don’t feed them with your stale bread which stuffs them, leads to dependence on an inconsistent source and provides few of the nutrients they really need.

Divers are a different matter, and fishermen are all too familiar with their skills and appetite.[iii] I have met avid fishermen in Maine who delighted in hunting mergansers in (and sometimes out of) season to reduce their numbers, shooting them in the air or on the water. Too many mergansers, which each eat 15 to 20 fish a day,[iv] are devastating to freshwater game fish populations in some Maine lakes; they more than decimate young bass and lake trout.  Loons, another aquatic diving bird with a similar avian profile, are also voracious feeders, but are protected: shoot them and go to jail. To gain some perspective, wildlife studies estimate that a pair of nesting loons with two chicks in the fifteen weeks of breeding season will consume a half a ton of fish. Loons are prehistoric animals that thankfully still inhabit our world; they lend credence to the theory that birds are descended from dinosaurs. Like diving ducks, they are sometimes found in salt water as well. Diver names are poetic: Red-breasted merganser, canvasback, bufflehead, surf scoter and common eider[v]. Some small ones like the bufflehead nest in the abandoned nests of woodpeckers and can move into your birdhouses. Each species diverged slightly over centuries as circumstances and their genes led them to become unique wonders.

At the risk of anthropomorphic duckery like Donald or Daffy, we can reflect on some human analogy. Are we dabblers or divers? Hunters or gatherers? Perhaps we are both, and our predilections vary according to our personality, our moods and our interests. Diving in some matters and dabbling in others. That is worth some consideration, a self-examination of where we would be better off dabbling and where we need to dive deeper. Are there suspicious creepy crawlers under the rocks in shallow waters that we should avoid turning up whilst we dabble?

 “The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.” Lewis Thomas, “The Lives of a Cell”

White tail deer at Sachuest Point

In the rough waves that encircle Sachuest Point Wildlife Refuge, we frequently spot surf riding diving ducks: surf scoters, eiders (also called St. Cuthbert’s duck), red-breasted mergansers, black ducks, harlequins in one of their rare East Coast wintering sites and the occasional loon. A herd of fifty or so white tail deer also permanently inhabit the hilly fields of the point, not quite tame, but not as shy as their unprotected relatives a bit inland. The slow and weak are eaten by coyotes but have no fear of human hunters. I’ve come within fifteen feet of them as they browse in late afternoon. The waterfowl too are immune to human shooters on the wildlife refuge, but the smaller ones live in peril of the large raptors that soar, sail on the winds and hunt. Overwintering snowy owls have been spotted plucking a full-grown unwary scoter out of the water and carrying it back to a field nest or a rock for a leisurely meal. No snowy owl made an appearance this year. The white haunting creature attracts a cadre of two dozen camera laden followers, some coming from hundreds of miles away to take that elusive perfect shot they can sell to the magazines. Too warm this winter, and the snowy owl mercifully stayed north, so we regular hikers of the trails can find a parking spot.

This year the main attraction was the almost as spectacular Northern harrier with her 40” wingspan. She hunts low, frequently gliding ten or so feet above the field looking for small rabbits, voles and mice. Short eared owls show up as well and attract some photographic attention, but the beautiful, smaller and common red-tail hawk remains much higher, mostly unmolested by photo snapping enthusiasts.

Our walk around the point is always restorative and always new after hundreds of repetitions, new with the many moods and seasons of ocean and fields. The three miles of trails are occasionally crowded (we pass ten or fifteen people along the way); many times, though, we’ll see only a few or in cold winds sometimes none. We dabble with everyone, almost universally pleasant and friendly. I am reminded of E.B. White’s memorable eighteen inches of both connection and separation in his classic “Here is New York” [vi]essay. Occasionally unbidden will come an instant of connection as we pass along the trail. We dive unexpectedly into their lives with authentic snippets of the overheard unguarded conversation of strangers, and our imaginations fill in the blanks. Our lives intersect for a passing moment.

  • I saw the harlequin and got my shots. Been looking for weeks for a clear photo for my mother.
  • They still have to dislocate my hip of course, and that will be difficult.
  • I think they are sending me to New York for a project. I’ll be gone a while.
  • I’m not expecting him to change, really, that’s probably impossible. But I do need an acknowledgement.

We dabble and we dive through our time here, and like the ducks we do the best we can to avoid the predators, raise our young and teach them our ways. We teach them to pay attention to the lives that we encounter along our way: to dabble pleasantly, to proffer friendship to all, and occasionally to dive deeply, risking our eighteen inches of separation when we hear the soft cry of loneliness or hurt or confusion. Knowing that often we will be inadequate with our own resources to heal or make whole, we try anyway as best we can.

“It is in our genes to understand the universe if we can, to keep trying if we cannot, and to be enchanted by the act of learning all the way.”  Lewis Thomas.


[i] From the Beauty of Birds website.

[ii] Dabbler ducks feeding

[iii] Diving ducks feeding

[iv] Red-breasted merganser (also called sawbills) from All About Birds, Ian Davies, Macaulay Library, Cornell University

[v] Common eider, from All About Birds

[vi] Here is New York” E.B. White

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