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Manito pond home to more than ducks

Thu., March 22, 2007

When it comes to birds, my former most memorable experience was the time a large, well-fed tropical bird pooped on my head at the Detroit Zoo.

My second most memorable experience was the time a gull pooped on my head as I ate Indian food outside Faneuil Hall in Boston.

My third most memorable experience … well, you get the idea.

I’m still not much of a “birder,” but I’m happy to say my interactions with those stealthy bombers now extends beyond so much pooping. I didn’t even have to leave the South Hill.

Audubon Society member and fellow South Hill resident Joyce Alonso led me on a tour of the Manito Park Duck Pond on Monday. I have a new appreciation for walking slowly. And birds. My goal was to see what all the fuss was about – “going to feed the ducks” seems to be the first thing South Hill residents do in spring, after refusing to take off their snow tires – and to see if there was anything worth looking at now that the pond is, sadly for many, swanless.

The most exciting thing Alonso and I saw was a Barrows goldeneye. Along with its golden eye, you can tell the Barrows by its purplish-black head, a crescent-shaped white patch under its eye, and a series of white splotches along the black feathers on its sides.

Our Barrows goldeneye was apparently quite a find.

“Look at the sheen on him,” Alonso said as we peered through our binoculars at a muddy patch under a tree 20 feet away. “Wow. He is a gorgeous duck.”

But in the world of the Duck Pond, there are many kinds of gorgeous. Even without the swans, the last two of which died last spring after they apparently were hit by a vehicle. It was the end of a series of violent incidents involving mom and dad swans Helen and Philip and their offspring (“birders” and “people who know what they’re talking about” call these offspring “cygnets”).

The waterfowl that stop in at the pond as they move along migration routes are probably a better fit anyway.

“Having the swans here was picturesque, but it wasn’t very practical,” said Alonso, a Spokane Audubon Society member since the mid-1980s and an avid bird educator. Aside from the insubstantial habitat where the swans nested – a patch of brush in the middle of the pond – she said the site was less than ideal because swans are territorial and aggressive toward other birds and sometimes people.

Our tour began at 9:30 in the morning, which was late, according to Alonso, but the closest to dawn I’ve been in a long time. Even for “night owls,” it makes a lot more sense to look for birds when they’re more likely to be around, which means early in the morning, as close to dawn as possible.

It’s easiest to see birds during their breeding seasons, when they’re wearing their fancy “alternative plumage” (as opposed to their “basic plumage”).

Alonso offered some other tips as well.

As I barreled toward a spot I wanted to show her, where I’d seen a bird that was not like the others, she tactfully told me that good birdwatchers walk as slowly as possible, even if they really want to get somewhere.

It also helps to wear unobtrusive clothing, Alonso said – no bright red or hot pink or neon yellow, and definitely no white. White is an aggression color.

The successful birdwatcher will not make loud noises or rapid movements or jump around and point when she sees some especially cute feathers sticking out of somebody’s head like a pompadour.

“You do not want to go, ‘Oh, look!’ which is very hard to do,” Alonso said.

Finally, said Alonso, be patient. Birds feed awhile, then rest awhile, feed awhile, fly around a bit, rest awhile, maybe root around in the mud awhile for a bug.

You’re on their schedule.

Besides the Barrows goldeneye, we saw lots of mallards, which are often tame enough to storm anyone bearing a crumb of bread (a more nutritious snack would be cracked corn or grain), and the wilder widgeons, which shy away from people. A widgeon has a white patch on its head and “sounds like a squeaky toy,” Alonso said.

We saw ring-billed gulls, which have an undeserved reputation as interlopers.

“You can find those down at Dick’s, but they’re also native to the area,” she said.

The Duck Pond is also home to a bunch of what bird people call “hybrids.” These ducks are hybrids like my dog is a hybrid, which is to say they’re of mysterious parentage.

They might be part mallard and part escaped farm duck. They might be part farm duck and part exotic duck that somebody dumped after their Easter celebration.

They come across as a little scruffy with their mismatched feathers, a little dumpy, like maybe they could get up high enough to poop on your head, but even so, they wouldn’t bother. That’s my kind of bird.

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