The four men set off at a forced-march pace to look for the masked duck, and I began to worry. My identification of the duck, which had felt ironclad in the moment, seemed dangerously hasty in the context of four serious birders marching several miles in the afternoon heat. I went and woke up Manley.

"The only thing that matters," he said, "is that we saw it."

"But the guy took my name down. Now, if they don't see it, I'm going to get a bad rep."

"If they don't see it, they'll think it's in the reeds."

"But what if they see ruddies instead? There could be ruddies and masked ducks, and the ruddies aren't as shy."

"It's something to be anxious about," Manley said, "if you want to be anxious about something."

I went to the refuge visitor center and wrote in the logbook: One certain and two partially glimpsed MASKED DUCKS, north end of Cattail #2. I asked a volunteer if anyone else had reported a masked duck.

"No, that would be our first this winter," she said.
The next afternoon, on South Padre Island, in the wetland behind the Convention Center, where about twenty upper-Midwestern retirees and scraggly-bearded white guys were pacing the boardwalks with cameras and binoculars, I saw a pretty, dark-haired young woman taking telephoto pictures of a pair of ducks. "Green-winged teals," I mentioned to Manley.

The girl looked up sharply. "Green-winged teals? Where?"

I nodded at her birds.

"Those are wigeons," she said.


I'd made this mistake before. I knew perfectly well what a wigeon looked like, but sometimes, in the giddiness of spotting something, my brain got confused. As Manley and I retreated down the boardwalk, I showed him pictures.

"See," I said, "the wigeon and the green-winged teal have more or less the same palette, just completely rearranged. I should have said wigeon. Now she thinks I can't tell a wigeon from a teal."

"Why didn't you just tell her that?" Manley said. "Just say that the wrong word came out of your mouth."

"That would only have compounded it. It would have been protesting too much."

"But at least she'd know you know the difference."

"She doesn't know my name. I'll never see her again. That is my only conceivable consolation."

There is no better American place for birds in February than South Texas. Although Manley had been down here thirty years earlier, as a teenage birder, it was a wholly new world to me. In three days, I'd seen fetchingly disheveled anis flopping around on top of shrubs, Jurassic-looking anhingas sun-drying their wings, squadrons of white pelicans gliding downriver on nine-foot wingspans, a couple of caracaras eating a road-killed king snake, an elegant trogon and a crimson-collared grosbeak and two exotic robins all lurking on a postage-stamp Audubon Society tract in Weslaco. The only frustration was my No. 1 trip target bird, the black-bellied whistling-duck. A tree nester, strangely long-legged, with a candy-pink bill and a bold white eye ring, the whistling-duck was one of those birds in the field guide which I couldn't quite believe existed—something out of Marco Polo. It was supposed to winter in good numbers on Brownsville's urban oxbow lakes (called resacas), and with each shoreline that I scanned in vain, the bird became that much more mythical to me.

Out on South Padre, as fog rolled in off the Gulf of Mexico, I remembered to look up at the city water tower, where, according to my guidebook, a peregrine falcon often perched. Sure enough, very vaguely, I saw the peregrine up there. I set up my spotting scope, and an older couple, two seasoned-looking birders, asked me what I had.

"Peregrine falcon," I said proudly.

"You know, Jon," Manley said, his eye to the scope, "the head looks more like an osprey."

"That is an osprey," the woman quietly affirmed.

"God," I said, looking again, "it is so hard to tell in the fog, and to get a sense of scale, you know, way up there, but you're right, yes, I see it. Osprey, osprey, osprey. Yes."

"That's the great thing about fog," the woman remarked. "You can see whatever you want."

Just then the dark-haired young woman came by with her tripod and big camera.

"Osprey," I told her confidently. "By the way, you know, I'm still totally writhing about saying 'teal' when I meant 'gadwall.'"

She stared at me. "Gadwall?"

Back in the car, using Manley's phone to avoid betraying my own name via caller ID, I called the visitor center at Santa Ana and asked if "people" had been reporting any masked ducks on the refuge.
"My Bird Problem" excerpted from The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. © 2006


Next Story