Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Of Buffleheads and Barnacles

There was a bufflehead in Califon the other day.

For the avian challenged, a bufflehead is a small duck. It is, in fact, the smallest diving duck in the United States. It was bobbing along in the river all by itself like a bath toy. Bufflehead is the name we humans have given these creatures. I would not call anyone a bufflehead unless I had a distinct height and weight advantage, as we clearly do in this case. We don’t know what they call themselves, but if they are as self-centered as us I’m sure it translates from the duck as something like God’s Chosen Birds.

These are uncommon but not rare here in Califon. The big news though is the annual arrival of the Barnacle Goose. This rare Asian bird has arrived around Christmas for the last several years. It comes with an entourage of hundreds of migrating Canadian geese which makes spotting it like finding a needle in a haystack.

This causes great excitement in the “birding community.” The web sites chirp and the e-mails twitter with hourly updates on the bird’s whereabouts. Birders come from miles around eager to add this prize plum to their life list. This is a list of every bird that a particular birder has seen in his lifetime. You don’t need photos or corroborating witnesses to add a bird to your list. In fact, you don’t actually need to see the bird; hearing it suffices.

It seems to me that bad birders like myself probably have more impressive life lists than our more adept counterparts, since we often see and hear birds that we don’t actually see and hear. It’s not that we are dishonest, its that when two birds look or sound alike, it is much more satisfying to opt for the more exotic.

Professional birders, or ornithologists as they like to be called, do this as well. Witness the flap over the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. Several experts have persuaded themselves that they have seen this presumably extinct creature. Others say they have seen the common Pileated Woodpecker and opted for the exotic. Hey, if O.J. can persuade himself that he didn’t do what everyone else knows he did, it’s no big deal for some professor to convince himself he has seen a defunct woodpecker.

It also speaks to the pace of life in this community that the big mid-winter event is the arrival of a goose. Groups of people wearing binoculars stroll the riverbank. Carloads of them cruise about asking locals for the latest goosian gossip.

Most locals couldn’t tell a Barnacle Goose from their sister-in-law but for a few precious days we are the Keepers of the Goose and special.

I, have in fact, seen the goose. Frankly, it isn’t all that exciting. It’s a little smaller and darker than a Canadian, but stands out about as much as a Bosnian in a crowd of Serbs.

Of course, the wet blankets at the Audubon Society are having none of it. They will not accept it in their annual Christmas bird count because they say that it is an escapee from a private collection rather than a true immigrant.

I say bully for the Barnacle and more reason to celebrate the gaggle of Canadians who, rather than “cleansing” him, have accepted him as one of their own. It’s nice of them to drop in on us at Christmas. Maybe they have room in their midst for a wayward Bufflehead.

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