Fieldwork 101: Naturalist defers to Polar Vortex, but Pair of American Black Ducks Carries On

Cayuga Lake, one of upstate New York's Finger Lakes; Aurora, New York (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)

View of Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York; Aurora, New York (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)


A naturalist of the modern era—an experientially based, well-versed devotee of natural ecosystems—is ideally among the best informed of the American electorate when it comes to the potentially catastrophic environmental effects of political decisions. (Barry Lopez, “The Naturalist,” pp. 120-121 in Vintage Lopez, Random House, 2011)

One of my 2014 New Year’s resolutions is to devote a part of each day to living as a naturalist, observing all species and nonliving forms (like clouds), and reading and writing in response to those observations.  That means fieldwork first, wherever the field might be (even the corner of a bathroom if an interesting spider resides there), carrying on despite snow, rain, heat, gloom of night, and fear.

The contemporary naturalist, it has turned out—again, scientifically grounded, politically attuned, field experienced, library enriched—is no custodian of irrelevant knowledge, no mere adept differentiating among Empidonax flycathers on the wing, but a kind of citizen whose involvement in the political process, in the debates of public life, in the evolution of literature and the arts, has become crucial. (Barry Lopez, p. 121)

One can argue that we all, at every moment, have this opportunity, but we do not realize it. We are not in the naturalist’s “trance,” E. O. Wilson’s word for the observational state of mind of the naturalist.

Jack and Daisy on Aurora Inn Dock (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)

Jack and Daisy on Aurora Inn Dock (photo by David Fernandez; Christmas, 2013)


Shortly after New Year’s Day I found myself tending a house with no furnace. The house faces the western shore of Cayuga Lake in upstate New York. Like a gang of wailing banshees, the winds of the Polar Vortex  from the north swept into town, causing furnaces to fail, schools to close, and a wind chill of double digits below zero. Seven space heaters and a constant fire were keeping the house at plus/minus 52 degrees.

I set my chair up on the stone hearth to be as close to the fire as possible. When I felt toasted on the left side, I turned the chair the other way to warm my right side. Even with long underwear, a long woolen coat and hat, I needed to be about a foot from the fire. I had work to do, reading about bees in preparation for a submission to an upcoming anthology about pollinator decline.

Hearth with small fire

Hearth where “naturalist” hung out during Polar Vortex


On Day 3, the furnace service technician still elsewhere (at a doctor’s office we were told), I continued my vigil, heaving wood into the fire assiduously. When toasting my left side up on the hearth, I had a good view of Cayuga Lake. Just a few weeks earlier, huge flocks of Snow Geese (called “rafts”) had settled on the lake in long, white ribbons, which parted into immense threads in the sky when they arose, alarmed by hunters’ gunshots. Now there were only two ducks, riding the tumultuous white caps side by side about two feet apart, near the dock. Although very Mallard like, their plumage was darker. I knew they were American Black Ducks (Latin species name: Anas rubripes, in French: Canard noir, in Spanish: Anade sombrio Americano). The plumage is actually dark brown, alleviated from somberness by an iridescent, violet patch (called a speculum) on the shoulder. As if sentinels or appointed companions to me, they rode the waves all afternoon within my view, side by side, until as the sun was setting they drifted under the dock, to parts unknown. The next morning the white caps had frozen into place. The ducks did not return.

Modest wintry white caps in January 2013.

Modest wintry white caps in January 2013.

The bugbear in all of this—and there is one—is the role of field experience, the degree to which the naturalist’s assessments are empirically grounded in firsthand knowledge. How much of what the contemporary naturalist claims to know about animals and the ecosystems they share with humans derives from what he has read, what he has heard, what he has seen televised? What part of what the naturalist has sworn his or her life to comes from firsthand experience, from what the body knows?  (Barry Lopez, “The Naturalist,” p. 121, Vintage Lopez)

I realize now that I failed, missing an opportunity to be a true naturalist in unusual, extreme conditions. I should have gone down to the dock, observed the American Black Ducks in the conditions that they were enduring, and photographed them. I wish I had, because I miss that particular pair.  I watched white caps pound them out of sight, but they bobbed up, again and again. American Black Ducks are “dabbling” ducks (as opposed to “diving” ducks), frequently tipping over headfirst to feed. I would distinguish their “bobbling” behavior during the winds of the Polar Vortex from what I have seen of “dabbling.” I would say it was more a matter of take-the-wave headfirst and reappear at all costs.

Cost is an important word. It “costs” in the form of energy to move any part of the body, to swim, to forage, to fly. I found a Master’s of Science thesis online entitled “Constructing a 24-hour Time-Energy Budget for American Black Ducks wintering in coastal New Jersey,”  by Orrin E. Jones III. Jones, a graduate student in Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, logged in 11, 542 observations of black duck behavior to find out just how much energy it takes for an American Black Duck to get through a day and night (the DEE or daily energy expenditure). In other words, he tried to calculate their personal balance sheet for maintaining existence. Activities like flying cost a lot. A bird under stress flirts with death if stored body energy reserves cannot support the cost of flying, for example. Jones’ research was partly funded by the Black Duck Joint Venture: An International Program to Conserve the Black Duck.

I shivered just watching the ducks, moving closer to the fire each time one of the pair disappeared into a wave. Having now reassured myself about the duck’s beautiful adaptations for surviving cold weather (greasy feathers and a special countercurrent heat exchange system in their legs and feet , I know that the human being, naked in so many ways, is much more in need of sympathy in a polar vortex than a duck. However, would it be too anthropomorphic to consider that they might have been uncomfortable in duck terms? Surely, any living species can experience discomfort?

Apparently ducks are associated in many people’s minds with “silliness and humor.” Not for me. As I revisit the image in my mind of the pair of American Black Ducks bobbling in the white caps on Cayuga Lake, I think about how all species struggle with their personal balance sheet, the wonder of biological adaptation, and the pleasure of spending an afternoon en-“tranced” by a pair of ducks. I treasure Barry Lopez’s description of the naturalist. I can’t think of a better job description for every human being.

Western shore of Cayuga Lake in early morning (November 2013).

Western shore of Cayuga Lake in early morning (November 2013).


P. S. For photos of American Black Ducks “on ice,”  please visit the website of naturalist/interpreter Gerald Wykes and read his  “Naturespeak” blog post “Black Ducks on Thin Ice,” which gives information as well about their dwindling numbers. Having diverged from their “sibling” species, the Mallard, about a half million years ago, they are now converging, it seems, as a result of interbreeding. See also Gerald’s photoessay “Picture a Polar Vortex,” which shows the ferocity of the vortex and various creatures “hanging out” in it.

2 responses

  1. Oh my, I love this piece! From beginning to end you have woven the naturalist’s view of the winter scene in with your own attempts to cope with the polar vortex so splendidly. It is lovely. And I think I know these ducks on the shores of Lake Cayuga!

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