It smells like cat pee out here. It’s a gorgeous morning at Oaks Bottom – blackbirds bugling, rain receding, sunrise staining the clouds a cotton-candy pink. The ferris wheel at the neighboring amusement park stands poised, vaguely majestic in the early shadows, waiting its turn for the Saturday spotlight. You couldn’t ask for a lovelier dawning. That smell, though.
It will only intrude on your mornings this time of year. Indian Plum in full bloom is a phenomenon worth enjoying, but maybe not one you’d want to encounter on the regular. As an item of seasonal interest, it’s intriguing. Once you catch sight of the charming white flowers, gathered into tiny bouquets and daintily suspended from bare, whippy little branches, you’ll forgive the plant its odor. And you might catch the sweeter variant, with a top note like those sugary peach-flavored gummy candies.
Several sources attest that the sex of the plant (Indian Plums are dioecious) produces the differing odors. Female flowers smell like a present you give on Valentine’s Day. It’s the males that smell like tomcats. Any case, Indian Plum is more than just an unsettling nasal encounter – it’s one of the first signs of spring.
Male red-winged blackbirds are another – shouty little buggers that perch on the top of a nice tall cattail and advertise their intentions to the whole marsh. They’re known to be territorial, and their boundary-negotiation tactics are intense. I’m watching a pair of them face off, not three feet apart. They’re fluffing their red and yellow epaulets at each other, hurling their clarion calls like ritual gauntlets, straight in the other bird’s face. All the excitement sets them waving about on their reed-tops, swaying dangerously close to each other, like they’re auditioning for a chase scene from Fury Road. They’re not quite acrobatic enough to get the call-back, but it’s a fine show, for a pair of smallish passerines.
Today marks the first hike on which I’ve – finally – remembered to bring my binoculars. As such, it’s my first experience of a new world. I watch those two blackbirds duke it out from what feels like about three feet away. It’s like being in a David Attenborough documentary.
But I can name red-winged blackbirds just fine with the naked eye. The depth of the difference doesn’t sink in until I spot something vaguely jay-shaped, perched at least 100 feet up. I draw my elbows in for stability, fix my eyes on the silhouette, and practice that smooth lift whereby experienced birders turn peering-from-afar into intimate acquaintance, without once looking away from the object of their interest. I will turn out not to be very good at this; I’ll lose a lot of birds. But beginner’s luck holds for now: suddenly in-focus and right there is a Western scrub jay, aphelocoma californica.
Before binoculars, “jay-shaped” would have been the beginning and the end of that encounter, a flicked glance, soon forgotten. As of today, I can access a new level of recognition. Instead of a category, it is in my power to discover a name. I drop the binoculars and nearly jump up and down, grinning like I just won a cash prize. (If I had, I might use it to purchase a neck-strap. Binoculars dislike impromptu mud-baths.)
The tiny optical device that produced this enormous effect magnifies 12x, with an objective lens diameter of 25mm. That last number especially is pretty small, and it means a comparatively dim display, particularly in foggy or low-light conditions. But it’s a revelation to me. Before today, I could count on two hands the number of wild birds I’d seen up close and personal. I’ve far exceeded that now by 8am.
In case you can’t tell (you can), I’m new to birding. As a skill, as a hobby, as a body of knowledge and habit, it’s not a little overwhelming, and I’ve realized I need to do what I would with any new project: break it into pieces and begin with one thing. I’ll shift focus, sooner or later, and again, and the dots will connect over time. It’s a pleasure to be in no particular hurry.
It’s spying on the blackbirds that decides my initial emphasis. Below them in the marsh, a ripple announces a pair of small, richly costumed waterfowl emerging stage right. They’re ducks, I know that much, and their pattern is vaguely familiar. I focus the field glasses on them, while the name floats slowly upward, surfacing at last in Latin: Aix sponsa. I have to look it up. They’re wood ducks.
Nearly everyone knows a mallard, at least by sight. But until this moment, a crowd of ducks was just that: mallards and some other stuff. And now I know where to begin.
Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden is exactly what the name implies: the best place in Portland for a peaceful walk among shimmering waters and blooming ericaceous shrubs. What the name leaves out is the birds. The garden is built on a wetland peninsula, surrounded on three sides by a pretty, reed-fringed lake, the boundary between public garden and private golf course. Long before the rhodies bloom, the waterfowl come to winter. It’s a good season to have begun my quest with ducks.
They gather here, in colorful profusion, almost half of them waddling about on land at any given time. I suppose humans feed them to encourage their unwariness, though that’s quite against the rules.
There are several terms for a group of ducks on the ground (as opposed to ducks in flight, or ducks in the water.) My favorite is the archaic badelynge, though I’ve also heard team, raft, and brace. A brace conjures images of dead ducks ready to pluck and eat, a raft seems more appropriate to floating specimens, and a team sounds like the ducks are lining up for either their jerseys or their trust-fall exercises. As group nouns go, this one was better in Middle English.
It’s early yet, but there are other people – parents with their small, bundled little ones, mostly – and I’m trying to juggle field glasses, mobile, and guidebook without looking too obsessed. After a near fumble, I give in. Sitting cross-legged next to the lake, I let the ducks come to me, and with the wonder of Eve, I name them.
Wood duck: the male jewel-toned, and the female soft and brown with shimmering opal highlights. She wears rockstar white eyeliner; his is bright red to match his bill. Both have wonderful, exaggerated tufts behind their heads, jaunty and angular, like the hair on a cartoon character.
American wigeon: they of the beautiful black feathers, dramatically outlined in white. Aside from those, wigeons aren’t showy, although their neat blue bills are distinctively cute. While I watch, one opens his to emit three breathy whistles, exactly like a higher-pitched version of the standard squeaky-duck bath toy.
Scaup: I’m assuming it’s the Lesser version, purely on the strength of my field guide’s insistence that Greaters live mainly on the coasts. Looking at the pictures, I’m certain I couldn’t tell them apart if they floated side by side. Just Scaup will have to do. But how do you say it? Skowp? Skopp? I roll the odd sounds in my mouth, realize I’m speaking aloud – and keep going anyway. I’m learning a new language here.
All this while, I’ve been stationed near the garden’s entrance, just the right place to keep an eye on the rising tide of human visitors. When I move of in search of a quieter slice of shore, I expect to startle the crowd of mallards milling about on all sides, but they barely budge over. Instead, I find myself wading through an anatine pond, with spotted brown and iridescent green waves lapping my ankles.
I’m moving in slow-motion, my hands out to pacify the restless masses, or possibly to defend myself when they all take flight around my head. I feel like I’m accidentally impersonating St. Francis, and at the back of my mind, a picture forms that is certainly ridiculous to an adult observer. It’s something else to a small child on the bridge above, who points at me and declares: “Duck lady!”
I was already feeling a good deal of joy, but this moment crowns my day. In his voice, I hear the same awe I felt earlier when I pulled urgently at my husband’s hand and whispered “Look at the blackbirds!” (Though I needn’t have whispered. The blackbirds are used to shouting down everyone around them.) On the one hand, I guess I could be embarrassed. On the other, I’ve been naming things all morning as an act of recognition, and that kid just named me.
It’s Day One, but I’m willing to declare my quest a great success already. I have learned to distinguish three new species. I have watched wigeons dabbling in 12x detail at great length, thinking so easily of nothing else that I might as well have been meditating. I have resisted the brief urge to stroke a wood duck’s soft, brown, speckled back. I have walked among mallards and become, without noticing, a duck lady. Probably life holds greater pleasures, but just now, I need nothing else. I’ll ride this high all day.
I generally look forward to the future, but unless I’m going on vacation, the anticipation is rarely specific. I go to sleep looking forward to sleep; tomorrow will take care of itself. Tonight though, that won’t hold. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and go find some more ducks.
Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge is in SE Portland, Oregon. It can be accessed from Sellwood Riverfront Park, from the corner of 7th and Sellwood, or at Milwaukie Ave, just off McLoughlin. There is no fee for parking. The area is popular and often crowded by 10am or so on weekends. Walking is mostly easy and flat.
Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden is next to Reed College, also in SE Portland. It’s small, and doesn’t lack for admirers, but it’s such an intimately landscaped garden that it absorbs moderate crowds quite well. Walking is easy and flat. There is free parking right out front, but not much; you may need to park in the nearby neighborhood and walk in. Admission is free after Labor Day, through the month of February. In March, it’s currently $4 per person, after 10am, Friday through Monday. Rhodies start as early as February, but the real show is in April and May. Luckily, in winter, there are waterfowl.