Once, many millenia ago,the Central Valley was underwater. It became an inland sea, after being surrounded by the uplift of the Coastal Ranges and the Sierra Nevada. At least 15 Sierran rivers made their way, uninterrupted to it, until they were dammed and diverted. Now it is a very dry. When spring rains fall on its flat surface, it resembles a silver salver, with the water quiveringly balanced on its long flat surface. It’s a wonderful place. In the eighteen-hundreds, one could navigate by water from the northernmost gold fields in Marysville to Stockton.
In February of this year, I drove to to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, located in the Northern reach of the Central Valley with my eldest sister Anne. The refuge is east of Clear Lake and west of Yuba City. The lumpy peaks of the Sutter Buttes, are visible on the flat horizon.
From the refuge you cannot see the foothills or the Sierras, unless it is a brilliantly clear day. What you always see is the modest plainness of the Central Valley: the flatness, the impounded wetlands, managed to within inches of their life, the withered riparian trees, and grain silos. It was hot-tish in the refuge, at the beginning of February. I thought of the other times I’d been there, when the air temperature was in the mid-forties and I’d walked around with my hands jammed in my pockets, wishing for gloves. Not that Sunday. The water in the impounded ponds shimmered in the morning sunshine.
Anne and I pulled into the parking lot of the refuge and parked the car. I consulted the whiteboard that other birders use to discuss their findings. “A Kingfisher!” one birder had noted, exultantly adding 4 or 5 exclamation points. I understood the excitement. Ever since I became a birder, the world has been more exciting. There’s always a discovery to be made. What is that small dot wheeling in the sky, furiously flapping? The bird is usually a pigeon, but sometimes… it’s something else. That day, it was a hawk. I blinked. There was a small white hawk sitting in a withered tree. The sun shone on his radiant head. Wow, I thought. Just like that. And so the great show began.
“Anne!” I yelled. “Harrier!”
This is my superpower: I misidentify birds. I have lots of enthusiasm and very bad eyesight (This superpower extends to all animals. Once I thought a stick was a spawning salmon in Lagunitas Creek.) I am no good identifying birds without a The Sibley Guide to Birds to inform me, and even then it gets dicey- male juvenile? Female juvenile? Adults, perhaps? And then: what gender? Are they molting? What are they doing? So many ways to be classified!
Anne glanced up at the radiant little hawk and said, “That’s a Kite.”
It was a White-tailed Kite, more specifically: Elanus leucurus, a lovely and easily recognizable bird with a snowy white head, a band of black on its shoulder and the large, tragic eyes of the smaller hunting birds in the Accipitridae family.
T.H. White, author of “The Once and Future King” gives a memorable description of Arthur’s hunting hawk. Arthur is changed by Merlin into a series of animals and begins his shape shifting journey within the natural world (“I should like to be a Merlin,” said the Wart very politely) and so Arthur comes to encounter Cully the hawk by visiting him in the mews. He discovers that Cully is insane. “His poor, mad brooding eyes glared in the moonlight, shone against the persecuted darkness of his scowling brow.”
I thought back to a time two years ago, when my friend Nancy had sighted a White-tailed kite sitting calmly on the top of a pole in the Delta and how she had trained her telescope on it and urged me to take the closest look I could ever take, without becoming a merlin myself and flying up and alighting beside it. With a sense of recognition that came as a shock, I saw, instead, the eyes of Natalie Portman in her Oscar-award winning role as The Black Swan: the amber eyes within the black mask, glowing with mad intensity. The hawk’s song in Chapter VIII in The Once and Future King came to my mind:
Shame to the slothful/and woe to the weak one
Death to the dreadful who turned to flee
Blood to the tearing, the taloned, the beaked one
Timor Mortis are we.
Death, death, death. Hawk or tormented ballerina: one thing is certain. In both worlds, it’s kill or be killed. The Kite sat calmly on top of the withered tree, pruning his wings and waiting for a small, unwary animal to cross his path. Anne and I walked to the viewing deck.
My grandmother Carmen Elliott, who loved birds and all wild things, and who saw many of them destroyed and displaced by urban development in Ohio’s urban centers, used to tell this story: She and my Uncle were driving in the Ohio countryside. They stopped at Wright’s pond, an area outside of Columbus, and noticed an odd-looking bird. They could not make out what they were looking at. They asked a by-stander to identify it, a county man, a Pagani, one not from the city. He looked at the bird with phlegmatic disinterest and said “That am a duck.”
“That am a duck,” I said to Anne, gesturing to the thousands of swimming, quacking, eating and sleeping ducks. Ducks entrance me. There are so many to be seen at the refuge: American Wigeons, Cinnamon Teals, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead, Gadwalls, and memorably, last year, the demm’d elusive (and non-native to North America) Falcated Duck, a stunning duck that sports an iridescent olivine head and frilly feathers that curl around its ass. It is classified as “near threatened” in its native habitat.Perhaps that’s why it had flown all the way from Asia to Colusa. So many ducks, male, female, juvenile, breeding: so many species in so many different stages of their life, clustered together in the refuge under the admiring eyes of the people who love them. It’s a safe place for the ducks.
A man walked briskly onto the viewing deck and immediately assembled a very large telescope. He was followed by a crowd of sluggish young adults (juveniles). It was obvious that he was a teacher, and that the stupefied juveniles straggling after him were his students. He looked like Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My sister perked up immediately. “I want to go back to school,” she said in a stage whisper. I insinuated myself among his students and hung on his every word. I had forgotten my copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds, and I felt naked and unprepared to meet nature with all her misleading clues without it. Just then an absolutely beautiful duck swam into view and heaved himself out the water and onto a log. I was sure it was a male. Their feathers are always brighter, and more iridescent.
A note: The females of most duck species are often described by adjectives such as “mottled” and “drab” which makes them sound like beaten-down housewives in a Raymond Carver story. Really, they’re just trying to be inconspicuous, the better to lay eggs and live to raise them. I personally think Female Mallards are gorgeous. Their feathers combine to form a sort of a tweedy pattern in shades of brown and cream. And they have a blue bar on their wing shoulder which is very chic, very understated.
I couldn’t stop goggling at the male duck and his salmon-pink breast, which was fat and plump, or his round head which seemed to end in jowls. He was perfect. The professor was excitedly pointing things out to his dazed students. “Look at that,” he said and trained his telescope on a duck, the Northern Shoveler, a cartoonish-looking dabbling duck (family Anatidae, sub-family Anatinae, so-called because they don’t dive for their food), with the coloring pattern of a Mallard- the familiar interplay of iridescent green head, amber/chestnut side panels and a flash of green and sky blue visible on the wing shoulder when the duck flies. The resemblance ends with their bills, which are huge.
These ducks have an enormous schnozz, and no mistake about it. They are the Jimmy Durantes of the dabbling ducks. They nose along the surface of the water looking for crustaceans. Northern Shovelers are quiet ducks, almost as if to make up for the attention they draw for their prodigious beaks. They’re also called the “poor man’s Mallard” which is unimaginative. With a bill like that? That’s their nickname?
I looked at the male duck that was roosting on the log; its breast was so plump, it looked like a safety bag had exploded from within its chest. I thought it was an American Wigeon. I was sure of it. But without my Sibley’s there was no certainty. I sidled up next to the handsome, distracted Professor and his sleepy students.
“Excuse me,” I said, pitching my voice low. I didn’t want anyone to notice my agitation. “I’m sorry to bother you, but…can you tell me if that duck is a Wigeon?
He looked. “That’s a Shoveler.”
“No, no- not that duck. I know what that is. I’m talking about the one right next to it,” Pay attention, I thought. “That’s a Wigeon. Right?” I was feeling desperate. I needed to be right about something.
“Oh. That one? Sixth from the left?” he asked. “Yeah- that’s an American Wigeon.” Oh thank god, I thought. I’ve learned something. I scribbled a note in my field handbook. “Anne!” I trilled. “Look at this duck.” I pressed my field glasses into her hand. Her energy had been a bit low that morning. Or mine was too high. (So hard to tell the difference, sometimes.) She gazed through the glasses. “Oh.”
All around us, Northern Pin-Tailed ducks were gliding around, another handsome species in the dabbling family, and one most often encountered with their butts hoisted high in the air. Their tail feathers, for which they are named, punctuate the air above their backside like two black antennas. They dive for food. Being classified as a “dabbling duck” apparently means nothing to them. The males have an arresting appearance: a brown head, which is just touched with olivine green. The breast is white and the coat is grey and they have a blue beak, and if this description doesn’t excite you, then you need to go and look at the Northern Pin-Tail yourself.
The professor pointed out a Green-winged teal, which he graciously allowed us to view through his very large telescope. It was a gorgeous duck all done up in shades of green and brown. I was annoyed that I hadn’t seen him first. While I was gazing through the telescope, Anne chatted up the professor. “Come here often?” I thought I heard her say. I glanced around the pond: Pin-tailed, check. Shovelers, check. America wigeon, male and female, check, check. There was one more duck that should have been here, with his shoveling, pin-tailed friends: the Cinnamon Teal, the most BEAUTIFUL duck in all the refuge.
Their coat is described as “reddish” and that’s true, but it isn’t a Diana Vreeland red nor a Valentino Red: more the red of a freshly-hewn yew tree or one of the other conifers. In fact, these ducks, when resting, look like little knots of redwood burl. And they have eyes that are absolutely scarlet. Their habitat was wide: North and South America. They were all over the continent, but not here, not now. Where were they? Anne was consulting her cell phone behind her oversize sunglasses and had checked out of the duck scene. I was ready to move on, but really didn’t want to miss my once-yearly sighting of the little red duck.
Luck struck. A fellow birder I’d confided in (“Do you think there are any here?” I’d asked. “Oh honey, yes. There’s always a Cinnamon Teal in this pond,” she said) said quickly “there’s one!” and pointed. I whipped my field glasses out and trained them intently on the far right-hand corner of the pond. Almost as if in answer to an inaudible cue, a Cinnamon Teal appeared and swam smoothly in front of us. Yes, I thought. That is the most beautiful duck in the whole refuge. “There’s a Cinnamon Teal,” I said to the handsome professor, happy to let him in on my world, happy to let him see the secrets of the best duck pond in Northern California. He was enthused. “Look at this guys! A Cinnamon Teal!” They crowded around his telescope.
I watched the duck paddle away and then looked at Anne. “Shall we press on?” I asked. There were other shows to attend in the refuge, other gorgeous birds to be peered at through my tiny binoculars. Black-crowned Night-Herons, sulfurous-yellow Western Meadowlarks, White-Faced Ibis, whose stature and dramatic poses would give Isadora Duncan pause, and brooding Red-Tailed Hawks were perched in every tree, bush and mudflat, innocently displaying their iridescent plumage, their curved bills and beaks, their sculpted wings, each one beautiful, each one worthy of our undivided attention.
The show was waiting. We left.
* I want to acknowledge the work of Ducks Unlimited, an international conservation organization of hunters that conserves and protects thousands of acres of precious wetland habitat in California through restoration, land acquisition and lobbying. In the Central Valley, according to their website, Ducks Unlimited have restored 60,000 acres of historic wetland.