As I exited the car, I was met by the moist cool air that accompanied the rain on my way to the river. It was March 15th and the forecast had called for a thunderstorm that morning and before I left at 11 o’clock, I’d watched flashes and heard the rolling thunder drum along the icy surface of Northwood Lake outside the camp’s windows. The park had a few visitors. A large man with a leather jacket and a Patriot’s hat pulled snugly over his round head took wide steps in a deliberate path to one of the piers jutting out into the Piscataqua River. A squadron of young parents with their eager toddlers scooted swiftly through the parking lot afterwards and huddled together as they crossed the park. A lone student read a book on the bench nearby.
I checked my supplies. I was heavily layered despite the forecast predicting temperatures of 60 degrees that day. I’d been to the shore before without them and the wind always cuts into the skin and bone when you haven’t taken the time to protect it. Under my hat and gloves, my skin was grateful I wouldn’t have to face the stiff breeze outside and enjoy what birds I would see on the river.
I wasn’t disappointed. One of the first birds I spotted was a pigeon. That might seem unremarkable, but it was certainly striking. It looked like it had gotten into a fight with a house painter. White and grey feathers covered its body giving it a disheveled appearance, even though their calm behavior suggested otherwise.
Feral pigeons (Columba livia) are common throughout towns and cities of the world and were first brought to the United States by the Dutch for food and for their precious droppings that were so valued as fertilizer that some lords in the old country posted armed guards outside their quarters to prevent thieves from stealing the guano. They are the ancestors of the wild rock pigeon (or rock dove as some older field guides might call it) and have crossbred with different breeds to create the mutts we see today. It’s no wonder that Charles Darwin based part of his theory of evolution on research he conducted as a pigeon fancier.
This spackled pigeon would later be joined by two “checkered” individuals as they surveyed the river from on high. From their vantage point, they could see across the river to the vertical lift bridge that stands between Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine. As a lobster boat ventured upstream, several avian fishermen were also plying the river for fish, crabs, and other seafood common in these brackish waters. Common loons (Gavia immer) and red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator) were especially receptive photography subjects that day, with a few individuals coming close enough to the piers that taking detailed photographs was easy and enjoyable. What amazed me was that for the number of people in the park, I didn’t notice anyone who saw them as well. Now, it’s likely they didn’t know what they were.
One of the reasons I became an educator in the sciences was because too often I would hear or see people asserting that they knew what something was even though they were completely off base. I can still count the number of times people have asked me if weasels are rodents and the astonished look on their faces when I inform them what rodents actually are and that skunks, ferrets, and fisher cats are all related to weasels. The same reaction can be experienced when you inform people that loons aren’t ducks like mergansers or mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).
I remember getting into an argument with a classmate while I was living in Wales about the difference between a loon and a duck. He maintained that if it swims, has webbed feet, and looks like a duck, well then, clearly it was a duck. This got me very hot under the collar as I gestured to the block print in front of us. While I don’t quite remember the circumstances, I do recall that we were in art class and that we were looking at a block print of a common and Arctic loon (G. arctica) diving amid a school of trout and were asked to describe what we saw. Being a nut about birds, I correctly identified the two species, but was astonished when my schoolmate couldn’t do the same. How could he be so misinformed?!
Above are three images of water birds, but only two are part of the family Anatidae which includes the ducks, geese, and swans and consists of 170 species worldwide. Loons are part of the family Gaviidae and have only 5 species. If you know your stuff, it’s easy to get into the weeds on specific technicalities of who is related to who and what that means. What I want to focus on here is how to identify the difference between a loon and a duck and trust me, even the ducks don’t make it easy! Fortunately for those of us who go birding, the ocean and it’s tidal rivers provide a wonderful selection of birds to watch during the winter months.
On Northwood Lake, pairs of common loons have been nesting for several years and regularly delight the people who summer at the lake as well. When winter comes however, the birds depart for the ocean and tidal rivers that remain free of ice. Their feathers begin to change as well. A loon’s winter plumage is duller than their summer finery; it reminds me of the grubby banks of snow and ice that loom over the parking lots of the big box stores that in turn, loom over their kingdoms of asphalt and concrete. It’s quite easy to see why I kept my eyes on the river instead of turning back toward the buildings of Portsmouth.
Loons are built differently from ducks. To start with they are heavier boned and require long stretches of water to be able to get airborne. While diving ducks like the mergansers and buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) have to do the same, their takeoff flights are much shorter and far less labored. In addition to heavier skeletons, their bodies are also distinct.
In Loons: Song of the Wild, edited by Michael Dregni, the loon family used to be called Pygopodes or “arsefeet”. I weep for the loss of such an evocative and humorous name because it is so true. Their legs are so far back on their bodies that if they end up on shore, it is difficult for them to move. They push with their far flung legs and sort of flop and shimmy towards where they want to go. Even diving ducks like mergansers can walk and waddle more effectively than loons can. Another feature that sets them apart are their bills. While most Anatidae members have triangular, flattened bills, mergansers have long, needle-like ones. In addition to their lengthy bills, they have rows of serrated plates that resemble teeth and are used to grasp fish and other aquatic prey as they are pursued underwater. As a result, waterfowl hunters sometimes refer to mergansers as “sawbills”. Loons by contrast, have a heavy pointed bill resembling a spear tip. After pursuing their prey underwater, they strike at them and bring them to the surface to be devoured. The loon in the photo above can be seen doing so in the background.
If you’re still confused as to how to tell the difference between a loon and duck, having some knowledge of their jizz can help.
Now before you slam the lid of your computer shut and write me off as a pervert, that word was mainly just to get your attention. The proper way of spelling jizz in this case is G.I.S.S. which stands for General Impression of Shape and Size. The term is thought to originate from the German “gestalt” and refers to the way something looks as the means to identify what it is. This can be what it does, how someone walks, or the outline of an animal.
When it comes to telling the difference between a common loon and a red-breasted merganser, one need only to compare their hairdos. Now before you get upset again and say something about the author thinking birds have hair, I should first remind the reader that there is such a thing as a hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus). Secondly, describing the crest of a merganser as a hairdo is an excellent way of putting it. If I were to ask you of the two photos below, which bird looks more like it has a punk hairdo, I think the merganser would win.
If we really want to get stuck into the difficulties of telling two birds apart, I believe I have the perfect candidates. While classic pairings like downy woodpecker (P. pubescens) vs. hairy woodpecker get more attention, I’ll bet my shoe soles that you weren’t aware there were two species of crow here in New England?
Now before you drag me out of my house for putting up pictures of the same bird, I shall prove that at least one of them isn’t what you think it is. The left hand photo features an American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) while the one on the right features a fish crow (C. ossifragus).
How can I be so certain though? Surely they look exactly the same?!
While they might look exactly like one another, they are distinct species. The only way to accurately tell them apart is by voice. While everyone thinks of a distinctive crow call as “caw, caw, caw”, fish crows sound like a pair of middle schoolers disagreeing about the difference between a duck and a loon.
“Uh-huh. Uh-huh”, some start off with. “Nuh-uh!”, others reply.
While I could discuss at length on the differences between these two and others (trust me, I could), I wanted to top off this post with how I felt being out there. Too often, my mind is noisy. It sounds like a shopping mall during the holidays. There are a million things going on at once, someone is upset about something trivial that happened three days ago and there is a catchy tune playing from a speaker somewhere. It feels claustrophobic and uneasy and there’s too much going on to focus on clearly.
This feeling eased while I was at Prescott Park. Even though, I was in a city park surrounded by buildings including a brick condo overlooking the river, the air calmed me down. Seeing the loons and ducks and pigeons calmed me down. Even watching the flow of river water out to sea calmed me and made me feel like I was surrounded not by deadlines, personal events, and expectations, but by the moment itself. As I made my way over to the first pier, a verse from a poem by Robert Dunn, former poet laureate of Portsmouth, was posted on the railing of the pier.
I smiled at its humor and kept it in mind as I watched the loons dive, hear the wail of gulls above my head, and felt the drops of the passing rain. I took it all in. It was a treat to be sure and a gift I look forward to receiving again and again when I visit the outdoors once more.