Stranger in a Strange Land

When in memory you visit that foreign land that is youth, what do you remember?  “Youth is wasted on the young” they say, and in some respects it’s true.  Kids principally have vigor and innocence on their side. But those who think that childhood and the place between that and adulthood is easy or in some way better than what follows have only forgotten the difficulties of youth.  Every era has its highs and lows.  Experience can kick you in the pants just about any time in this life.  The trick is solving the problem presented.

Never mind thinking that because we’re a “higher order” that  people corner the market on experiential woe and attendant life lessons.  The school of hard knocks admits anyone with a heartbeat.   Animals, birds, invertebrates and arguably plants all suffer the consequences of their errors.  And boy, when you are young it is so easy to walk into the closet thinking it’s the front door!

Due to that unfortunate tendency on the part of young things everywhere, Farmington is experiencing an uptick in visitation.  Heaven knows we’re used to the tourist trade.  What with a house full of rare paintings and antiques, plus a one-of-a kind exhibit of Gee’s Bend quilts here at the museum, and loads of other notable happenings in this historic town in the vibrant Farmington Valley, we get visitors all time.  But not like this one.  A stranger is among us, and he very likely spends a good part of his day trying to figure out how he got here and what to do next.  I refer to a Harlequin Duck who has plopped down in the Farmington River by the Grist Mill just down the hill from Hill-Stead.  He has caused traffic jams to break out in the usually peaceful Riverside Cemetery, from where you can often get a pretty good look at him.  Cars from all over are just pouring in every day, spewing out people with big binoculars, scopes and cameras, just for this little duck who probably weighs little more than a pound. Everyone agrees that his coloration suggests he is a first-year male, so this is his first stab at following a grown up routine.

What’s the fuss?  This fellow isn’t even as big as a mallard, and since he’s a “diving duck”, rather than the hiney -in- the- air kind, you could easily miss him as he swims underwater to feed.  First and foremost, this chap just doesn’t belong here.  He’s a sea-going type, rarely seen inland and not even especially common at the beach where he does belong. Preferring turbulent waters, and cold ones at that, Harlequins nest in the very far north.  There is a larger population in the west than here so even if you see them in the waters off Rhode Island (and people do it seems every winter), it is a bit of a thrill.  But the real draw, aside from rarity?  Well, the bird is drop-dead gorgeous.  If George Clooney were a duck and you compared him to a Harlequin, George would come out looking like Rumplestilskin.  

Have you ever felt you were just in the wrong place but you weren’t sure how you got there or how to leave?  If you are a man, this has surely happened to you while on a car trip. Our little chap may have fallen in with the wrong duck group and migrated just a little bit outside the proper range.  Right now, he is sharing the river with some scaup, ring-necked ducks, wood ducks, black ducks, some mergansers (both hooded and common) and about three thousand rude, honking Canada geese. (See “Goosey, Goosey Gander, Whither Shall I Wander” for more on Canada geese).  Every day, birders flock to our little town to get a look at him.  We don’t know how long he’ll stay.  Surely he’ll get the urge to get himself back with his clan. It isn’t long before he’s due way up in Canada so he can meet a nice girl and settle down.  If he gets there too late, he may not find a mate, or he’ll have to settle for one with “such a pretty face” that no one else wanted to dance with.  As winter melt and spring rains come, our river will rise, and the choppy riffles the Harelquin likes to bounce around in will smooth out. If the biological imperative doesn’t get his attention, maybe the water conditions will.  But he isn’t going sit around looking silly (but beautiful) for long.  After all, the lesson isn’t complete unless you find a way to solve the problem.  Those adept at solving problems will rise to the top, accumulating life’s lessons and ruefully recalling detours to places like Farmington.

See You on the Trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


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6 Responses to “Stranger in a Strange Land”

  1. Sarah Johnston Says:


    What a lovely essay! I’ve been watching your blog closely since you hinted that you might write about the spiffy Harlequin Duck that’s gracing the mill pond. He was still there this morning (1/25); I watched him diving in that rushing, icy water that pours over the dam. Like you, I’ve been wondering when he will feel the pull of the northern rivers. As I wrote to CTBirds earlier this morning, “The rain and snowmelt will change the river contour in the next few days; it will be interesting to see if the duck stays around as the water smooths out. In times of high water, the dam is sometimes completely submerged and the entire are is flatwater (though swift). All reports for this bird, positive and negative, will be welcomed.” On the east coast, wintering birds are being reported this wek off the Maine, Mass., and NJ coasts, as well as a few farther south. But this little guy in Farmington must indeed, as you say, be wondering how he got here and what to do next!

    Thanks for your wonderful blog.


  2. hillsteadnatureblog Says:

    Thank you Sarah. As the finder of this plucky little duck, I appreciate your good eye and your pithy reports to the bird list serve. Your own blog is a pleasure to read. Thank you for all of it. Regards, Diane

  3. Bridget Willard Says:

    Home Alone-duck style!

  4. Scott Says:

    Great blog!

    I just started a hiking blog at

    Check it out! I think you’ll enjoy it!

  5. Patsy Says:

    This is a great read. Poor beauty may be stuck forever but lets hope not.

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