Late February is the dreariest and least hospitable time of the year; if not rain, there’s snow, ice, sleet, and gale force winds from the northwest making for some uneasy days. A redeeming factor: the arrival of the buffleheads or dipper ducks, as they’re called. In the bleakest of days, they bring a ray of light, or more to the point, a scattering of lights.
One early morning recently, I saw a small armada of buffleheads navigating the cove. The sun had not fully risen and the dipper ducks, still in the shade, looked from a distance no bigger than fishing bobbers floating in the water. One bufflehead dove under, then another, still another as they randomly submerged to feed. It takes a keen eye to see where they will resurface but that’s one of the delights they present; trying to guess becomes a pleasing diversion as I wait for the sun to rise over the trees.
When the sun finally ascends above the trees tops and illuminates the cove, the dippers will be visually transformed; they’ll go from being colorless dots floating in the water to tiny but vibrant flashes of light, like strobes exploding in random sequences. The dippers submerge and surface again in less than a minute. As they surface, the glossy sheen of water still enveloping them and their white clusters of feathers glitter in sunlight. The armada now appears like glass shards scattered over the water, shiny and glistening.
The dive that dippers make is like a miniature replay of how a porpoise first rolls forward to submerge. The dippers, when preparing to dive, will draw back their necks slightly and then suddenly roll forward effortlessly in a somersault as smooth as you please. Under they go in one effortless motion.
I saw my first dipper ducks when I came to Maryland fifty years ago. I was visiting Ft. McHenry with a friend, a Baptist minister, who was a Maryland native familiar with local wildlife. We were standing at the water’s edge and I noticed a large flock of ducks diving and reappearing significantly distant from where they submerged. Fascinated, I asked my friend what they were: dipper ducks, he told me. I said to him that they must be Baptist ducks; they practice total immersion.
I’ve never actually seen dippers on the wing but only in the water where they’re obviously very much at home. They’re also at home above or below the water. They can remain submerged for a little less than a minute which puts them under some pressure to select their meal in a timely fashion. No dawdling here. They usually prefer seafood; they know just what they want to have even before they go for a dip and down to eat.
Occasionally I’ll see a dipper bobbing on the water, apparently content with his solitude and making no attempt to dive for his supper. He’ll look tiny there on the water, no bigger than a handball. Compared to the geese whose presence on the cove can be overwhelming –– I rarely see a goose alone, they’re social creatures –– but it would seem for the dippers, although they will often appear in large numbers, that some of them relish time just to be alone.
One day from my studio windows I watched a solitary dipper. He was content to be taken wherever the wind and current would dictate. I’m sure I impute to this bird a feeling he may or may not have. It is one I know I have.
This solitary dipper just bobbed on the water for the longest time. He never dove. He relished the solitude.
I remember as a boy taking solitary sails on Raritan Bay in my eleven-foot Penguin sailboat. My excursions were typically during the week and after school and I had the whole of Raritan Bay to myself. The time of solitude was magical.
I’ve known loneliness and solitude and they are very different. Loneliness weighs on me. It’s a fearful and frightening feeling; it includes an attendant sense of personal vulnerability, as if some unidentified danger lurks somewhere nearby and no one is there to help me deal with it.
An experience of solitude is paradoxical. In solitude, I am indeed alone and there is no one nearby. And yet I feel safe and secure, and surrounded by some kind of benignity, the way I’d feel in the company of good friends.
In the light wind the Penguin would ghost along, a mile off the south shore of Staten Island up toward the Narrows, bobbing, carried along with the wind and by the current. There was no one on the beaches. In the distance, I watched ships going in and out of New York Harbor and I could see the headlands of Sandy Hook. I’d be embraced by the spaciousness and feel confident that I was exactly where I belonged. I knew I was somehow an integral part of the land and the seascape. The light wind was taking me to no planned destination. For a while I felt in tune with the world, floating on the bay, like a single dipper duck in the cove, content to be carried by wind and current.
I finished writing this essay in the first week of March. I left the computer to stand, stretch and look around. I looked out on the cove. It was about 1:00 pm. I saw nothing. Then I’d see one, and looking further, another and finally lots more. As I continued to look, I saw the tell-tale wake of a couple of dippers, the glitter of others just surfacing until I realized the cove was filled with them.
There are people who hunt dippers. I am writing this to celebrate the joy buffleheads bring me. Do you suppose they know that and that they arrived here in numbers to support my efforts? I like to think so.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.