also Painted Duck, Mountain Duck, Rock Duck, Lord and Lady, Squealer.
"Harlequin, well named! Fantastically decorated, but still a thing of beauty! Delightful in color, elegant in form, graceful in carriage, rightly are its little companies called the "Lords and Ladies" of the waters. This is the loveliest of the Sea Ducks, but its beauty is reserved mainly for the cold and inhospitable North and the wave-lashed rocks of isolated ledges in the wintry sea."
--Edward Howe Forbush in Birds of America (1936)
Monmouth County Audubon's annual frozen pilgrimage to see the Harlequins at Barnegat Light was last weekend. We had a very small group... probably due to the especially frigid temps.
It's one of my favorite places in the world, but the walk out the jetty to see the Harlequins is not for the faint of heart. We were blessed that day with a gentle wind out of the right direction and a low tide... so the boulders that make up the mile long jetty were mostly dry and free of ice.
Still... I mostly walked along the sand beside the jetty... looking for Sparrows and Snow Buntings and Horned Larks and leaving the dangerous stuff for the foolhardy members of the group!
The jetty was constructed to protect the shoreline and prevent sand from filling in the inlet. It and a parallel jetty on the north side of the inlet are designed to keep the channel from the ocean to Barnegat Bay deep and navigable.
If you're lucky, as we were, a couple Harlequins will be feeding in tranquil waters at the very beginning of the jetty where there's a concrete walkway and a guardrail; oftentimes it's necessary to walk the full length of it to the roiled waters and slippery rocks at the very end to find them.
We walked all the way out anyway because the jetty and its boulders attract a variety of marine growth (like mussels which the Harlequins feed on) and which otherwise attracts fish, which, in turn, attract more birds like Loons, Scoters, Eiders, Mergansers and Long-tailed Ducks. Purple Sandpipers, Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderling populate the mossy crevices of the jetty.
Even if there weren't birds to look at, one could hardly be bored with the constant threat of a broken bone or a concussion with any misstep!
I'd imagine the Harlequins to be something of a boon to the local beach communities which are otherwise mostly deserted in the winter. Someone has to serve chocolate-chip pancakes and hot cocoa to all us shivering birders!
Barnegat Light is, for those who love the sea and the immediate shore, a very special place.
All the little ponds here along the coast are frozen solid, mostly. Each has at least some open water and that's where all the birds are congregating. Fletcher Lake between Ocean Grove and Bradley Beach had this Great Blue Heron (who looks scarily hungry for some Mallard flesh!), many Mallards, a couple white domestic ducks, a Pintail(!!!), a Wigeon and a Black-crowned night heron sleeping along the shoreline.
A couple blocks away in Spring Lake we found a single Snow Goose feeding on the postcard-sized lawn of a beach house with a small group of Canada Geese.
I find myself inclined to worry about wildlife when everything is frozen and snow-covered, but remind myself that wild things are good at surviving. They do much better than I ever could, for sure...
In Long Branch, we stand beside a maintenance shed
of the county park service,
with its four-wheel drive pickup trucks
its piles of road salt
and its border of Japanese black pines.
We spend frigid minutes
shivering in the wind,
the sun warming our faces
and the hint of a warbled song
drifting down in a shower of winged scales.
With tear-stained cheeks and icy fingers
we point past the chain-link fence
to a pile of dirty snow
and a small reddish bird with crossed bill,
quenching its thirst.
Beyond the small group of latecomers, I watch
the green expanse of the Atlantic,
the gray gull, small and perfect as a toy,
that glides across the horizon.
We head back to the warm car;
our pursuit complete,
the promise of cocoa
or an overpriced Windmill hotdog,
with chili and cheese.
- - - - - - - - - - -
I can't say anything about the Red and White-Winged Crossbills here at the Jersey Shore that hasn't already been said, other than that they're still in their expected place at Seven President's Park. For whatever reason, I waited until the coldest day ever to go see them. Neat birds... certainly worth the frigid temperatures.
Crossbills are the only family of birds that have crossed mandibles; what might look like a deformity is, in fact, an adaptation for the bird's feeding habits. Crossbills insert their closed bill into the side of a pine cone and then open it, tearing out the scale and exposing the seed within, which is then scooped out by their odd-shaped tongue. Aside from the quiet trilling, it was the sound of pine cones being torn open that gave away the Crossbills' presence and allowed us to spot them in the shadowed pine trees.
These birds have been present at the park for nearly a month and those of us that venture over to see them must present something of a curiosity to people in the neighborhood... enough that they drive by to ask what in the world we're looking at.
Crossbills wander widely in the winter months, as do birders looking for rarities.
Between the poet and the grimacing woman
on a beat-up blue bicycle,
lies a blurred wasteland.
She hasn't always been this person.
Her squalid apartment
the letters scrawled in mad ink
that fizz by themselves in my in-basket
the dreamy smile
that makes her look, suddenly, young.
Walking the tightrope with her
ignoring the drop of the past,
avoiding looking down
to recognize the loss
and spinning, headfirst
into dizzying sadness.
The fear that I, too, might unravel
and spin off into nothing.
- - - - - - - - - - -
CM is a published poet, a librarian in a past life and a client of mine. She recently admitted that she suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and fears that she'll be evicted, now that her landlord knows the truth about her. She insists that her mental illness doesn't affect her ability to write poetry.
I worry about her a lot, visit her often and get almost weekly letters from her. Once or twice a year, she'll send me a poem. I treasure those.
The man with the "golden voice" has me thinking of such things... I imagine a government social worker, somewhere, cheering him on, knowing this was coming, all along.
- - - - - - - - - - -
Photo from the Howard Finster collection at the High Museum in Atlanta. I was there recently to see the Dalí exhibit and... wow!