Thursday, February 16, 2012

Northern Pintail - Northern Pinhead

Northern Pintail drake with American Black ducks, as seen across the marsh on Hermit Island, Phippsburg Maine, February 2012
Marsh grass frozen under tide water, Hermit Island, February 2012
Do you see any car keys here?

Northern Pintail drake with American Black Duck drake, Phippsburg, Maine February 2012

 Northern Pintails have narrow, long wings and slender necks.

Northern Pintails upending at the Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Preserve in New Jersey, 2010. Notice their pointed tails.
This may be the only owl I find all winter. It is folk art that I found on a fence post at Popham while searching for a Snowy owl.

     At home, I have a title; I am known as The Queen of Find. This is because my people think I have magical powers to find anything anytime. This includes objects I don’t own nor had any reason to even lay my eyes upon.  There’s no real secret to this; It’s just a system. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking where was the person who used an item when they last had it. That’s a no-brainer which any reasonable person should employ before asking someone else, namely me, “Have you seen my…… fill in the blank.”  Most of the time, I don’t think about it because, I can literally ‘see’ the object in my mind. In fact, thinking about it usually messes with my powers. 
     I was born with some degree of what is called a “photographic memory.” As a youngster, I learned to use this talent to keep my father from beating us kids. When he couldn’t find something he had usually misplaced himself, I quickly pre-empted his wrath by finding what he sought, thus saving one of us a thrashing. Back then, being the Queen of Find had strictly practical applications. As I got older though, I came to like feeling special. I'll admit that by now, I have probably fostered dependency in some of my loved ones for the sake of my own thrill. 
     I was also born with really great eye sight. In fact, until the past couple of years, I had 20/10 vision. Any object that most people need to be ten feet from to see clearly, I can see from twenty feet away. This gave me a hefty advantage for birding, too. My husband is amazed at the birds I see that he does not, until I point them out. Traveling together on any given stretch of road, I'll see six raptors in the trees where he sees none.  Many times I've heard "You've got such a great eye!" A splendid birder friend once told me that I had "birding mojo." He didn't know it, but he couldn't have given me a finer compliment. I felt magnificent! 
     I'm at the age now where many of these talents are failing me and it scares the snot out of me. I am not going gently into the good night of aging. Like a lot of  women, I have struggled with knowing that I'm no longer the hottest babe in the room. Maybe I could deal with that more gracefully if everything wasn't disintegrating at once. I want to keep a couple of my talents that have set me apart. Does aging have to be a slow slide into incapacities?
     I do understand that cosmic balance and fairness dictate that compromises be made. So, I easily gave up on the idea that I would become an Olympic figure skater. My modeling career tanked when I stopped growing at five feet tall. And, I surrendered my dream of becoming a nuclear physicist when I flunked high school algebra. Those were my compromises, God. So where's the fairness?
     Everybody said when my eye sight started going to hell that it would deteriorate to a point, then stop, but apparently that's not true. Though my house is littered, confetti-like, with colorful reading glasses, none of them seem strong enough. I can't see far away quite as clearly as I used to, either. And now, my birding magic is losing its twinkle, too.
     I've seen quite a few rare birds in my birding career. I've had a good eye for picking them out and I've put the time and effort into it, too. Just this past week, I've seen and photographed a rare, Red-headed woodpecker and a Northern Pintail duck. The duck isn't rare, but it IS rare to see one in Maine in February. Nonetheless, the prize I long for is a Snowy owl. I've gone hunting nearly every day for weeks, so my failure to get one isn't for lack of trying. It must be, that like my thickening waist and ankles, my wrinkling face and dulling vision, the blush is off my mojo.
     After one of my recent fruitless Snowy expeditions to Popham Beach, I stopped at Hermit Island on my way home. A sulking brat, I was feeling very sorry for myself and quite desperate. My eyes keenly scanned the salt marsh and clam flats. That's how I spotted the Northern Pintail drake amongst the American Black ducks, all dabbling along the mud line. Well, at least that was something!
     I had barely stopped the car before I was shooting pictures out of the open window. I needed to be closer, so I pulled over. So as not to alarm them, I left the door open and slipped around the back of the car. Creeping across the muddy flat, I hunkered down to keep a low profile. I imagined myself like a sleek, Arctic fox slinking across the marsh. 
     Northern Pintails are a fairly large duck. Long and slender with narrow wings, they are fast and graceful fliers, sometimes called the “Greyhound of The Air.” The drakes sport a long, pointed tail which gives them the nickname “sprig.” When in breeding plumage, the tail accounts for a quarter of the full length of the bird! They aren't rare, though their populations have been in slow decline. Hybridization with invasive Mallards in the western and midwestern United States may be one reason. Predation by foxes, Bobcats and other large carnivores, disease, habitat loss and hunting are all contributing causes to their decline.
     Sprigs are dabbling ducks that eat mostly plants and insects from the bottom. Upending in shallow water, their long necks enable them to reach further down than other ducks. Usually eating in the evening or at night, they rest during the day. They breed in the northern areas of the planet. Highly migratory, they winter south of their breeding range to the equator. 
     The thermometer in the car said it was seventeen degrees. A biting wind cut across the flats from the west. As I stalked the ducks and waded through the icy tide water, I was mindful of where I stepped. In that cold, I couldn’t afford to stumble into a hole. Amber marsh grass, flattened and trapped in ice, lay in elegant whorls at my feet. Suddenly, the ducks flushed and the whirring wings raised them skyward and away. I was freezing!    
      When I got back to the car, I could not find my keys anywhere. I am compulsive about not leaving my keys in the car because I am paranoid about locking them in. I always put my keys into my right, front pants pocket. I check and double check them.  For me to lose car keys was unheard of! I couldn’t freaking believe it! I traced and retraced my steps through the frozen marsh at least a dozen times. After about the sixth pass, my feet went from throbbing to numb. I passed over and over the same beer bottle, rubber lobster claw band and wad of balloon ribbon, but could not find the keys. I grabbed fistfuls of my own hair and screeched at the sky, "Where they hell are they!" I screamed at no one. From far across the cove, a loon cried back.
     I searched the car, knowing they weren't there. The tide was creeping in as I walked the marsh again. I thought about frost bite. I didn't have a cell phone; coverage here is spotty at best. I was miles from a phone or occupied home.  I had left the car door open and window down to sneak up on the now, long gone ducks. I had thousands of dollars of camera equipment in the car, more than I could carry and more than I could abandon. Panic was setting in and panic is not my style. The Queen of Find was going to die empty handed and without ceremony on a clam flat. When I started to cry the tears froze on my face.
     As I was triaging which pieces of equipment to carry with me for the long trek ahead, a pick-up truck came barreling along. The driver named John, had a cell phone which mercifully had enough bars that I was able to call my husband to come with spare keys. I was exhausted and embarrassed.
     The next day, I went back and looked again, to no avail. Why would I look for keys lost in mud on a tidal flat, you ask? Because to have lost them was so unlike me, and to not be able to find them, less like me still. The Queen of Find had been summarily dethroned in the cold mud. 
     On the second day, David rustled up a metal detector that he had procured from the town dump. He put fresh batteries into it, then said "Let's go try for the car keys." It was stupid really because the tide had cycled in and out several times. Ice chunks had scoured the grass clean of even my footprints. For over an hour we wandered in circles on the mudflats like lunatics looking at our shoes. We found the same beer bottle, rubber lobster claw band and the wad of balloon ribbon, but not the keys. After an hour, David said he could totally appreciate my frustration. "If they were out here, we would have found them by now." He did find a quarter with the salvaged metal detector.
     Then, he found the keys on the floor of the car under the driver's seat. Just shoot me now, God.


  1. Losing the parts of ourselves that make us happy about ourselves is certainly hard to take. Misery, however, lives company and I have to admit that it's reassuring to know that I'm not going through this process by myself. You're still a great storyteller and your photos are fun to see. I love all those pintail. Butts Don't stop either as they both are something you should be proud of. AnnieO

  2. Despite some small diminution of your visual and mental acuity, you still can write a compelling short story/blog entry - very entertaining! I hope you find a Snowy Owl to photograph soon. (Or an Ivory Billed Woodpecker, or something grand).

    El Jefe

  3. Annie, O, but OH! You are so sweet and pretty I cant' believe for a second that you are in the throws of aging. Say it 'taint so! One of these days, somebody will photograph me ass end up somewhere, I'm sure of it. And, no ifs ands or butttttts about it, the ducks will look better. Thanks for the read, comment and compliments. XO

  4. Thank you, El Jefe for the vote of confidence!I figure I've still got some game left if I can compell you!

  5. Your too funny Miss Robin.

  6. robin, the same thing happens to me. sorry I wasn't around to be of help. I've been at Popham, but to be honest, I am not looking for birds, but looking at the stuff left by the tide. I need to think, hey, maybe there is a Snowy Owl out there, according to you know who. Keep the peace, Ronnie

  7. You so witty and funny.
    Love, K

    Kris Lape
    Kris Lape Designs

    Glass Drops Jewelry


  8. You Have Your Mojo Back…a great story and a great set of pintail drake pix. Next time you are here I’ll show you the pintail I carved in 1970. “Come up and see my pintail?”


  9. Hummmmm! My first thought was the floor of the car. I have done my share of " shit where are the f' ing keys and went nutsso. I now have the keys on a ring with a lanyard and snap hook to my belt loop. Life is good!!!!!!!

  10. Hi Robin,
    Enjoyed your story. I can relate to the loss of 20/10 vision and other perils of advancing age. I also had 20/10 and now feel the beginning of the loss of my "wonderful" eyesight. I am not whining, it still works pretty well? I should be thankful.
    The reason for my e mail is to say I can understand the keys story. This has happened a couple of times to me. My right jacket pocket or right pants pocket will eject the keys if I am sitting to right side of seat and they will fall to right of seat and under seat if you get back in the car seat or shift to get out. I carry now a small high intensity flashlight to see under the seat and retrieve them. This is very normal when you are excited or see something you want to check out or photograph because your focus shifts and your mind looks to see what it needs to do to "solve" the "question" or "problem" (No. Pintail) and forgets where the keys were. I hope this is helpful? (should the keys or other things disappear in the future) David is the best! You guys are a team!!!
    Hope this finds you well and seeing new birds.

  11. Join the crowd dearie,it's called normality,or over 50 syndrome.Good story and truly hope you get your snowy owl soon.

  12. All the laments on aging sound soooo familiar. Remember, thought, 80-year olds will always (at least for the next decade, anyway) think we are the hottest babe in the room. As far as the car keys, I literally laughed until I cried. I just recently found car keys I had lost for two months - in the console of another car.

    Carol M.

  13. Oh man, I feel your pain! This is an awesome post, with an ending that made me laugh out loud. Thanks for sharing it... If you ever put all your posts into a book people would line up to buy it!

  14. Aaawwwwwe, Jen, you warmed the cockles of my sad little heart with the remark about a book. thank you so much for that! It would be my dream come true to have a book. That's a whole big project unto itself. BMC and Carol, thank you, also. I'm not sure making people pee was my goal, but I'll take it! Great reactions. My husband said when he read this that I was telling a lot of people's stories and that many would relate to it. Apparently so!

  15. Paul, thank for the lovely thought about David and I as a team, true enough. And, the high intensity flashlight idea, too. I did have a flashlight in my car, but frankly, I was SURE the keys weren't in there. How about a high intensity device to illuminate my brain?????

  16. JTR thank you for the lanyard idea. But, knowing myself as I do I'd be apt to strangle myself with it. :)

  17. Fantastic pics n post, queen of lost and found.

    trudie jackson
    February 17, 2012 12:58 AM

  18. Jonathan Wolfman (OS)February 17, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    This is as unusually a poingnant offering here as I have seen in ages. Terrific! r.

    Jonathan Wolfman
    February 17, 2012 09:06 AM

  19. gracious jane smithie (OS)February 17, 2012 at 11:12 AM

    i want a metal detector, and i want a great eye. great pics, robin. i once saw pink footed geese in north carolina. at least, thats the closest i can get to finding them - they had bubble gum pink legs and bill.
    be fun to go birding with someone like you. thanks for sharing with us.

    gracious jane smithie
    February 17, 2012 09:17 AM

  20. Jonathan, thank you for the glowing comment and rate! One great thing about aging and thusly, failing brain is that I am apparently in wonderful company!

  21. Gracias Jane Smithie, and gracias to you! I'd love to see a Pink Footed goose, so good for you. God only knows what sort of trouble I could get into looking for big wads of bubble gum with wings out in the wilds! Oooooo, the visuals come a tumbling in.

  22. Crap. I understand, sister.

    Sometimes I wonder if we learned to see while becoming artists, or if we became artists because we learned to see. I have the presbyopia thing now too. What seems helpful in terms of adaptation is exploring the close up view, rather than the vista. A section of mossy tree bark from three inches away is a miracle. These days, I leave the long distance treelines for the kids ;-)
    The search for the keys expedition sounded kind of fun, romantic even. What did you two buy with the quarter?

    February 17, 2012 09:55 AM

  23. You are a find. Man I miss those colours, and the birds, and my eyesight. My parents bought a small cottage cheap in Biddeford Pool, Me., on the pool side. I walked that beach and watched the tide and the birds come in every summer of my life until a couple of years ago when they couldn't afford the property taxes anymore.
    I always had great eyesight too. So sure of it that when my school aged son started complaining about not being able to read street signs from a block away, I retorted. "Don't worry, neither can I. And if I can't read them, nobody can." Finally after much nagging we went to the local optometrist for an eye exam, and I discovered to my horror that I needed glasses. Still can't get used to that.

    Juliet Waters
    February 17, 2012 10:40 AM

  24. HI, some funny pix. I enjoyed your car keys story & was glad to learn that they were found. you can't imagine some places that we have found our keys, cell phones, check-books, clothes, etc. after months sometimes. grrrrr.
    enjoy the thaw & good luck finding a snowy. will ask my hiking group if they saw one yesterday while walking on Popham beach. I have a cold & couldn't go. another grrrrr.


  25. Awesome images. Ducks are hardy souls. I'm good at finding things for others; but when it comes to my own things, I can't find them. I once thought I had lost my prescription sunglasses. After getting everyone into a panic, my daughter spotted them. The sunglasses were sitting on top of my head. R

    February 17, 2012 10:41 AM

  26. Trudge, I hate to admit it, but I've done that. In fact, I've seen myself in a mirror while passing in the hallway and noticed that I had three pair on, two on my head and one on my face. And I still couldn't see. Crap, indeed. Could not have said that better myself, greenheron. Thanks to all of you for the reads and your own contributions to the story line here. VERY funny!

  27. This is a fantastic post, Robin--the photographs have so much emotion, and the writing itself is great--full of pathos and humor, both. Nice work! (I'm the Queen of Lost. My husband finally gave me a fancy key hanger I could screw to the wall so that I could keep my keys there. Only, I lost it before I could screw it to the wall...)

    Holly Robinson
    February 17, 2012 10:51 AM

  28. Holly, "Queen of Lost" I love it! Very funny about the key keeper being lost before employed! thanks for the read and comment.

  29. All's well that ends well, Robin. You still have your mojo! And 20/10 vision! My God! I have 20/800 (approx.) vision (considered legally blind wo/contacts or glasses). My sense of hearing is quite strong, however. Great photos and story.

    Erica K
    February 17, 2012 11:06 AM

  30. WONDERFUL post, Robin! Just now found it [and, wudja believe, I wasn't even looking for it? ;-)] and savored every minute! The photos, the bird details the wintertime-in-Maine associations. And, of course, the Prevailing Problem of car keys. Inasmuch as I'm estimating I'm a good (sic?) thirty or so years older than anyone else on OS (with a few cherished exceptions) I'll spare you my own tales -- except to thank you heartily for the visual and verbal treats! [I seem to be big on exclamation points this morning.......]

    February 17, 2012 11:50 AM

  31. Oh, honey, what a tragically sad tale. I can relate. I can only offer another piece of wisdom garnered from years of losing things and years of finding things. Always start where you were sure you last had them and expand out in widening steps of where you went. I know that sounds so obvious, but I cannot tell you how many times I was absolutely certain I... and then found what I was looking for on the kitchen counter next to where I made my last cup of coffee, or in your case, on the floorboard under the seat -- they probably didn't actually make it all the way in the pocket and fell right out as you twisted to get out of the car.
    As for your bird mojo, I think you're just hitting a rough patch. It's not just eyesight that makes for good bird spotting. I can assure you, because I have had astigmatism (diagnosed since the 2nd grade in 1967) and only started wearing glasses after my 47th birthday.
    I used to practice moving my eyes. For astigmatism is also called "Lazy Eye" where the muscles in one eye are not as strong as the other eye. It results in depth perception issues in the dark, fuzzy double images after reading too long, etc.
    I can still spot birds quite well, but I don't use just my eyes. I listen, I feel and I just expand my awareness as much as I can be in allowance of. I have scared hawks (and myself) by getting so close to them that I was less than 10 feet away. In those times, I have been so damn surprised, because my conscious mind was busy saying, "If it was here, it's long gone by now."
    Relax, enjoy the spotting and don't think of it like hunting. I don't have any proof, but I think the whole hunting mentality and calling photographing "shooting" sends the wrong energy out. I do my best to move silently, keeping my mind still, and opening myself up to sensing all the world around me, experiencing it to the fullest.
    Then I tend to spot the birds, animals and quirks of nature (including all sorts of odd sounds) and if I don't get a photo? Well, at least I have the memory of having been there for it.
    And rest assured, some days, you're just going to have no sightings and no amazement in the spotting. But you'll still have the day, the moment and the experience of being there. Empty handed is not empty experience.
    I'm still putting out my Snowy Owl feelers for you. I'm pretty goldarn sure there ain't no Snowies gonna show up here in Central Texas, so I'm definitely rooting for ya.
    Breathe, laugh, enjoy. The rest will come.
    February 17, 2012 12:16 PM

  32. What a fantastic post! First the pictures were magnificent and then the story was riveting. The only problem is that I know you are telling the truth about aging. (I know from experience) but I'm sure you will figure out a way around that and be the queen of something else in the next stage of life.
    February 17, 2012 12:20 PM

  33. Aaah yes, but the door opener has not yet appeared. This problem of yours will get worse when you reach 'the forgetful stage'. Cars and pockets have been searched along with 'surfaces'.

  34. Oh my…at least you weren’t in your robe and slippers….right?

  35. Dear Queen of Find and many other things. . . I am very much like you when it comes to NOT losing keys, and if I do (which happened once) I cannot deal with it. It was almost a personal slight on my inconceivable stupidity. I often find objects for others. Anyhow, just goes to prove that in spite of all your wonderful capabilities and talents, you are, after all human. I loved your story as well as your photos, which goes without question as I'm a fan. Will you keep the "lucky" quarter?

    February 17, 2012 02:06 PM

  36. Oh, Mary Ann, that was funny! Geez, did I leave out that detail? Tell ya what, I was so cold I would have welcomed my robe. After all, the mud would have washed out, right? I should keep a back up robe in my car. :) Thanks for the read.

  37. What a story! I didn't know if I should laugh or cry. But I laughed so hard I did cry...Sorry that it was at your expense! Maybe you should get a lanyard necklace that has a clip on it for your car keys or a stretch bracelet like I have for mine. My favorite photo is the Northern Pintails upending in NJ. They were mooning you!

  38. HG, funny! Mooning me, eh? Ya, I guess so. I thought they were pretty funny, no ifs, ands nor BUTTTTS about it. I'm glad I made you laugh, too. Thanks for the read and commment. XO

  39. Simply beautiful in every way. Fabulous photography!!

    Fay Paxton
    February 17, 2012 08:48 PM

  40. phyllis45's Bright Eyes (OS)February 18, 2012 at 11:00 AM

    I really needed that laugh. Beautiful pictures, too.

    phyllis45's Bright Eyes
    February 17, 2012 08:55 PM

  41. Chrissie Pissie (OS)February 18, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    Aging sucks, but your picture taking does not!

    Chrissie Pissie
    February 17, 2012 09:48 PM

  42. A Simple Shutterbug (OS)February 18, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    Oh, Robin, I can totally relate to this! Although I am such a wimp that if the temperature was 17 degrees I would have stayed in the car in the first place.

    A Simple Shutterbug
    February 18, 2012 08:22 AM

  43. Fay, ASimpleShutterBug, Chrissie and Phyllis45's, thanks so much for the read,rate, comments and compliments. You folks make me feel great and a little less stupid! ASSbug, I got up this morning at 5 to beat the sunrise trying for birds today as it's the Great Back Yard Bird Count. Got a couple of really good ones for this time of year, including the Sprig mentioned below. It was cold, but not as cold as the other day when I had my adventure. Got great sunrise shots, too!