A Christmas Story

Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel

On Christmas Eve last year I had dinner with one of my closest friends. I gave him a print of a Canvasback from a painting by a remarkable 14-year-old girl. Her painting had won the national Junior Duck Stamp award. Both my friend and I regard the Canvasback as our favorite duck. Christmas Day dawned bright and clear with a cloudless blue sky. As always, I recalled the wonderful Christmas mornings I enjoyed as a child and the warm times with my parents and sister who have all passed away years ago. Since I am a bachelor and live alone, Christmas morning can be lonely, so I decided to go to my favorite birding area, Hornsby Bend, which is only 15 minutes from my home. There, I drove around the sewage ponds. It was very windy. I was surprised to see so few ducks. A flock of Green-winged Teal were huddled together on the opposite shore. I got out my scope and focused on several males. They have such deep chestnut heads with a dark green stripe. They are one of my favorite ducks. Seeing them was worth the morning outing, but little did I know the best was yet to come.

I drove to a trail that starts at the end of Platt Lane, a road on which the Platts and their children used to live before the city bought their land. We used to stop and ask permission to enter their property. The Platts looked like the couple in the painting “American Gothic.” Walking down the trail, I saw a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Carolina Chickadee, and a House Wren. Since it was windy, the small birds were mostly staying out of view in thickets. I usually walk a two-mile loop that passes through some areas of brush and some open fields, but on this day I made the fortunate decision to take a side trail that goes to the Colorado River.

As I approached the river, I saw there were a good many ducks about 100 yards downstream. Most of them were Gadwall, but I was delighted to see several Canvasbacks. I had left the scope in my car, but quickly decided to walk back to get it. When I returned, the ducks were still there. I crept to the top of a small hill where I was partly hidden by some bushes, lowered the scope to the height I would put it for a small child, sat down, and scoped the flock. I quickly realized there were many more Canvasbacks than I had thought were present. I counted them twice and came up with 25, the largest flock I had ever seen. Larger flocks occur in other areas, and probably others in my area have seen larger flocks, but for me, seeing such a large flock of my favorite duck was the best Christmas present I could have had. They were in glorious morning light. I sat there looking through the scope for an hour, just savoring every detail. There were about 9 adult males, 7 immature males, and 9 females. Most were in one long irregular flock that was stretched from left to right as I looked downstream. They were swimming in a line and seemed very alert. Occasionally one or two would dive and stay under for a few minutes. At other times they would roll on their sides and stretch one wing, or sometimes scratch their heads with one of their feet.

Canvasback Aythya valisineria male Tucson, Pima Co., Arizona 9 March 2009

Canvasback – Photo by Greg Lasley

As I watched, I noted all the detail that makes looking closely at any bird such a rich and satisfying experience. The adult males had a deep chestnut head with a black crown and black front of the head. Their eyes were bright red. A black area that was shaped like a neck scarf separated the chestnut neck from the striking white back. The Canvasback’s head has a shape like no other duck. It is shaped like the head of a horse. For this reason, in the Cajun country of Louisiana the hunters’ name for it was horse head.

While I was watching the Canvasbacks, I was surprised to see come into my view a ten point buck that was swimming across the river. Only its head and neck were above the water. In addition to the Canvasbacks I counted 57 Gadwall, 6 Ring-necked Ducks, 2 female Lesser Scaup, 1 male American Wigeon, and a partridge in a pear tree! Even after an hour it was hard to leave. What a perfect Christmas morning. I had given my friend a print of a Canvasback painting, and the next morning the world gave me a whole flock of Canvasbacks.