Parable of ducks

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(Host) Recently commentator Tom Slayton spent some time bird watching south of Boston, and for a healthy dose of optimism, he recommends the ducks.

(Slayton) We think of November and December as a time of shutting down, a time when life ebbs and prepares for a long wintry sleep. But life itself
continually proves us wrong, as I found out on a recent birding trip to the Massachustetts coast.

The shores, the rocks, the pounding surf, even the broad, seemingly inhospitable ocean, are all teeming with life at this time of year: bird life. And Cape Ann – north of Boston on the Masachusetts shore – is one of the best places in America to see bird life teem. In November, December, even later, the shore there seems alive with birds.

Standing on Halibut Point, north of Rockport, you gaze out over an immense expanse of dark blue, windswept waters: miles of icy whitecaps churning in the winds of early winter.

And there they are! Strings of eiders and scoters fly past; a flock of harlequin ducks veers and settles into the churning surf. And far out, you can see the deep, powerful wing strokes of one northern gannet – and then another and another.

In the blue vastness of the North Atlantic, an ongoing pageant of birds goes by: grebes and loons, scoters and gannets, ducks and razorbills and guillemots and more: sometimes only visible through a spotting scope, sometimes playing in the surf at your feet. They are worlds within worlds, proof that life, given half a chance, wants to go on living. And that it does so with grace, power, and much beauty.

My favorite moment of the very full weekend I recently spent at Cape Ann was the flock of plump, immaculate harlequin ducks that fortuitously, flew in and settled into the surf right in front of me. Harlequin males are an unbelievably stylish concoction of slaty blue, chestnut red, and white-striped plumage. The females are only slightly less spectacular.

You could see them clearly with binoculars and even better with a spotting scope. A single natty-looking duck would completely fill the scope’s field of view. You could see the texture of their feathers and the little chestnut-red mark on the top of their heads.

I was delighted with their beauty, but even more with their equanimity as they pitched and rolled in the heavy surf.

These are uncertain and violent times; and so it was somehow calming, even reassuring, to watch these tiny ducks tossed about in the huge sea. They rode up the front of each huge, powerful, cresting wave, then rode down the back side, continuing to paddle around and dive for food, as unflustered as if they were sitting on a tiny pond instead of the heaving, windswept ocean.

They drifted in and out of the raging surf line where the waves crashed, and more than once rode directly up the face of a wave as it curled right over them, disappearing, then miraculously bobbing up like corks on the wave’s foaming surge, as if nothing had happened.

How reassuring, I thought. How pleasing. How infinitely lovely and moving. The parable of the ducks. It was worth the whole trip; I watched it for a long time.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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