The Day of the Dipper Ducks by George Merrill

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Nature doesn’t usually take the sting out of difficult times of year, like mid-February to mid-March. I find this time a seasonal bummer – cold, dreary and unpredictable. There is one creature I know that makes this season not only endurable, but at times, thoroughly delightful. I am, of course, referring to the Bucephela Albeola, the uptown Linnaean designation given to what you and I know as the Bufflehead or more popularly, the dipper duck.

In a lifeless season such as February, these little critters bring life in abundance to our lusterless creeks and marshes. They have real pizzazz.

The dipper duck goes by various aliases. New Jersey hunters call them ‘butterballs’ or ‘hell divers,’ but one shouldn’t expect much by way of aesthetic sensibilities from our northern neighbors. These designations suggest a predatory view of these delicate creatures by assigning names to them like the doomed Thanksgiving turkey or a Nazi sub.

Dipper ducks are a favorite of birders. I’ve heard some comment that dippers are exceptionally punctual They arrive on the Shore just when they should. This year, I began seeing them about the middle of February.

Actually, it was years ago in late February at Ft. McHenry that I saw my first Buffleheads. It was love at first sight. I was enthralled watching their antics. At the time, I was with a Baptist minister friend from the Eastern Shore. I pointed to them and asked him what those ducks were called.

“Dipper ducks” he replied unhesitatingly and, I sensed, even with a little admiration. Being a Baptist minister, it seemed to me he’d have more than a casual interest in any practice involving total emersion. Indeed, he did, but in this case, he was simply identifying them by their common name.

I find them very distinctive; it’s their diving habits. They seem to emit a bright flash as they take dives. The dives are made suddenly but smoothly, like summersaults. On their heads, there’s a significant daub of pure white. As they dive, the white catches the early morning sun, creating the impression of sunlight reflecting from a tiny mirror. The light goes off upon their submersion only to appear again as they resurface. There is the suggestion here of some exhibitionism among dipper ducks, like kids at a pool who always cry out “watch this” as they jump and disappear into the water.

It’s not uncommon to see Mergansers mixing it up among small armadas of dipper ducks. By comparison, Mergansers dart about in zig zag patterns – unlike like dippers that generally go in one direction. Mergansers also appear unkempt, even shabby, compared to dipper ducks that look immaculately groomed with heads dark and polished. Mergansers’ head feathers make them look as though they were having a bad hair day.

I find dipper ducks adorable. They’re cute, even cuddly; they seem as if they are just playing although they’re really just foraging underwater for their dinner. I want to pick one up and run my hand over its small bulbous head, the way people feel an irresistible urge to pick up an infant or a baby chick. Of course, the dippers would have none of it.

Ducks are fair game for hunters. Buffleheads are among the hunted. For reasons I cannot explain, I’ve never seen buffleheads hunted in the small cove next to where I live. There are two duck blinds on the cove so I am assuming the interest is there. I’m hoping the dipper ducks have won the hearts of the most determined hunters. They certainly have won mine and judging from various duck carving exhibits, local craftsmen as well.

Unusual for most birds, dipper ducks are as much at home in the air, on top of the water as they are under it. Strictly speaking, dipper ducks are not all that at home underwater. They dine underwater like we go out to dinner at a restaurant. They don’t linger there. We enjoy our dining experience, but as people say about New York, great to visit, but not to live there. They submerge only to eat. They resurface, float briefly, then take another dive or fly back to their nesting sites. The speed with which they find food and dine is swift; they may be more inclined to fast foods to avoid drowning. In any case, they just gulp it down and go for the surface.

Unlike most other amphibious birds, they can submerge, resurface and be flying off in the air in a matter of seconds.

Over the years, hunting has diminished duck populations in general. Although Buffleheads remain popular among hunters, their numbers have not seemed to dwindle. One theory offered is that Buffleheads nest in small holes in trees vacated by woodpecker’s. The woodpeckers’ abandoned nests are big enough for dippers to raise their young, but small enough to discourage intruders who may be considering having them for dinner.

I have seen Mergansers going through mating rituals, but never Buffleheads. Courting means showing your stuff and I’ve read that dipper ducks strut their stuff in a very macho way: in order to gain her attention, he can puff his head up dramatically, enlarging the signature white daub on the side of his head while paddling in front of her, his beak pressed deeply into his expanded chest.

Such exhibitionism may lead us to think the Bufflehead is just another lothario. Not so: he keeps the same mate for years. . . or maybe it’s that she keeps him for years. This is uncertain.

I tell you any of this because at least for me, in the cold and bleak weather on February creeks, just a few minutes watching the Buffleheads feeding (or if you’re lucky enough, courting) either way it will make your day like nothing else.

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.

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