by Bill Sargent
In late January, Bill Sargent took a busman’s holiday, joining Bill Gette of Friends of Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on a birding trip sponsored by the Massachusetts Medical Society. We were looking for ducks, and frankly, things were a little slow. But suddenly, Bill spotted a pair of hunters unloading their camouflaged skiff. Like any good guide, Bill recognized a teachable moment.“Good morning gentlemen. Could I possibly borrow one of your ducks to show our group?” The hunters gladly obliged. Bill held the Common Goldeneye
to the light and showed how its neck feathers turned from brilliant green to a deep velvet black depending on the angle of the light as it hit melanin in the duck’s feathers. It was the closest those birders had been to a wild duck, and they were fascinated.
One of the hunters was also so impressed he said he would have the beautiful duck mounted to display in his office. Bill spread the duck’s wings and explained how the primary feathers lifted the ducks in flight and made them so fast.“Yeah, that’s why they are so hard to shoot,” said the older hunter. “We would have two more if my companion was such a bad shot.”Of course, we wouldn’t have been bothered if you missed a few more,” responded Bill to laughter. Then Bill asked the hunters how much they paid for duck stamps and state and federal hunting licenses and explained that it was money from the licenses and memberships in hunting conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited that paid to buy land for places like the Parker River Wildlife Refuge. A passerby pointed to our group and said, “Hunters and birders, that’s not something you see every day.” He was right, and it’s no exaggeration to say that both groups felt a warm glow from our serendipitous marsh-side encounter.
The hunters were an affable pair with the same respect and reverence indigenous people have for their catch. With a minimal carbon footprint, the hunters could enjoy each other’s company, appreciate the beauty of the winter marsh, and go home with some hard-earned food that had not spent its whole life up to its flanks in its wastes in an indoor factory farm. This duck had had a pretty good life in the wild right up to its last minute, which is never very good in any circumstance. Like indigenous people, the hunters were sustaining nature and giving back to nature by paying their licenses and stamps. The hunters also gave me pause. They used a minimal carbon footprint to enjoy nature and bring home local food.
On the other hand, Bill had just returned from a much-appreciated but distant environmental trip. So who was the better environmentalist? Who was greener? Mass Audubon has addressed this issue by no longer sponsoring distant birding trips in favor of concentrating on their local bird populations.
So, by the end of the day, we had seen hundreds of ducks and raptors, including a bald eagle, soaring over the Merrimack River and a peregrine falcon expertly sighted at 50 miles an hour while crossing over Newburyport’s Route 1, Gillis Bridge. We have also discovered that hunters don’t necessarily have horns, and birders don’t necessarily have halos.
Bill Sargent is a science writer and contributing columnist.