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Admiration for the Hell-diver

I love April for it brings the promise (if not the actuality) of spring.

As the snows fade (yet again), one does sense that its ultimate disappearance won’t be too long in coming. One “feels” spring even before finding outward signs of it.

For me spring especially means the opening of my little lake. White for so long and then eventually looking like water but unmoving, ripples WAVES! do finally appear. It isn’t an exaggeration to say this adds an entire dimension to my life for now there is movement and life where, to my eyes, it hasn’t been for so long.

And, even neater, the open water immediately attracts the various commuting ducks. I have seen mallards since February (when possible) and was hearing the Canada geese long before they found my welcome mat. They’ll stay of course and nest here as will the wood ducks, starting all over again that wondrous cycle of life.

Others stop to visit stays that only last a few days at best and then move on farther north where nature calls for them to settle a while.

All of these are diving ducks. Deigning to show no interest in corn or any food strewn across the lawn, they prefer their diet of seafood or grasses. Happily though, unlike the beaver (or those especially elusive otters), they are happy to munch and then rest on the surface so my identification (with admiration) is made easy except for a bit of trouble with the female mergansers.

And, yes, indeed all three mergansers (hooded, common hardly! and red-breasted) are as happy to be my guests as I to welcome them. So beautiful. So special.

There is, however, another diving duck happy to make my reacquaintance: the bufflehead. Also a diver, he prefers to munch on mollusks (or, depending on which book you read, shrimps, small fry, crawfish, leeches, locusts, grasshoppers and other insects, even grasses).

Like the hooded merganser, the male bufflehead has a large white flash on his cheeks. His, however, does not stop in a single design on each side but extends completely over his head. His mate must do with a smaller streak of white but even that sets her apart from the mergansers. And, since they usually appear here as a pair, identification is easy.

Pulling out a quite unused Birds Of America (1917), I am delighted by Edward Howe Forbush’s article on what he says can also be called the Bumblebee Duck, Butter-box, Marionette, Conjuring Duck or, my favorite, Hell-diver. He says the name bufflehead came from its big fluffy head which appears particularly big when it erects those feathers.

Revering the voice of an earlier age, I’d like to quote Mr. Forbush at length: “My youthful experience with the Dipper Duck convinced me at the time it could dive quickly enough to dodge a charge of shot; but its immunity from danger probably was due more to my inexperience and to the inferior quality of the gun and ammunition used than to the quickness of the bird. However, it dives like a flash and is very likely to escape. . . In flight it hurls itself through the air with tremendous speed, its rapidly moving wings almost forming a haze about its glancing form, which buzzes straight away as if bound for the other end of the world. . . In 1870 Samuels regarded it as a ‘very common and well known bird’ in New England and abundant in migration. At its present rate of decrease, another century will see its extinction as surely as the last century saw that of the Great Auk and the Labrador Duck.”

Happily, they are hardly extinct but how interesting to watch the boy with his gun grow to the man more concerned with preservation.

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com