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Published: 2/10/2020 6:00:20 AM

Last Thursday was a bit of a nice surprise for me. I was lying in bed at 5:20 a.m., thinking about getting up for work and questioning some of the choices that I’ve made with my life. Then, as if the universe had heard my thoughts and decided to throw me a present, my phone rang with news that school had been canceled due to ice. So I reset my alarm for a more reasonable 6:45 a.m. and went back to sleep.

When I finally got up, I discovered that it really was rather unpleasant outside. In the gloom of that stormy morning, I saw a few birds looking hopefully for the seeds that I hadn’t put out yet. Struck with guilt, I shoveled paths in the snow, spread out some birdseed and went back in the house. By the time I got to my desk, there were 25 to 35 finches and sparrows that had arrived all at once. The little birds were hungry.

I lit my oil lamp so I could write in my journal without bothering the birds with bright lights, sipped a mug of fresh coffee and began to think. The house was quiet and it was quite dark beyond the small circle of light that the shaded oil lamp produced. It was just then that I heard the quiet tinkling sounds of sleet hitting the windows. All of this conspired to transport me back to another early morning in February 2014.

I was in Newport, R.I. that year and I was up early to visit Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. My initial goal was to see some harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus), but it seemed the wildlife gods had other things in mind for me that morning. I was in a heavy coat, snow pants and heavy boots and I had been very glad for it when I descended down to the water through some surprisingly deep snowdrifts. Then I found a relatively sheltered nook in the rocks where I could sit and wait in “comfort.” (Don’t tell anyone, but I was actually very uncomfortable.)

There were ducks around, but they were being coy with me. I had initially thought that I might be well concealed but I was disabused of that notion when I realized just how many of the birds were staring at me. They would surely be accustomed to seeing seals “lounging” on the rocks at this time of year, so I wonder how many of them were trying to determine just what sort of seal I might be. Thus, in addition to being very uncomfortable, I was starting to feel a little stupid, too.

I had just about reached the end of my patience for this game with the ducks when a small group of black scoters (Melanitta nigra) arrived from my right. For some reason, this particular group came very close to me, either because they no longer cared that I was there or because they were more interested in diving for food in the spot right in front of me. Either way, it was exactly what I had been hoping for.

I had never seed black scoters at such close range and I have to admit that I was more than a little impressed with the absolutely gorgeous plumage of the adult males. To be such a rich, velvety black and then to sport that marvelous orange knob on his “nose” is simply elegant. One male came so close that I could actually make out his black eye against his black feathers.  It was a jackpot moment that made the complete loss of all feeling in my right leg seem worthwhile.

Then a female surfaced so close to me that she seemed a bit startled. Perhaps she had been so distracted with feeding that she lost track of where she was. Imagine having to contend with wind and waves on a stormy February morning while you dive underwater to look for small mussels and other shellfish that you must tear free from the rocks and swallow whole. I might lose track of myself, too. She kept her eye on me as she paddled away, but then seemed to relax when I didn’t make any sort of move.

February break is right around the corner and I know that many people may be considering trips to warmer climes. However, if you’re looking for a closer destination where you can make a day trip, or possibly a longer visit of two or three days, you might consider a trip to the magnificent New England coast. From Maine to Connecticut there are all sorts of places to look for winter ducks then warm up with a nice bowl of clam chowder. I think I might head toward the water myself, so if you see an odd-looking seal that seems to be stranded on the rocks, it’s probably me.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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