When searching for Bald Eagles, most people find it difficult to get excited about ducks. Nonetheless, as we trekked Croton Point Park on Sunday, some divers in the Hudson River caught our eye. They were bobbing along merrily in stunning black and white plumage. Clearly, these were Bufflehead. It looked as if a few drakes were joined by less striking females.

We love bufflehead. It’s always a pleasure to spot them riding the waves. However, we have grown accustomed to seeing them everywhere, from the stormy Atlantic to tiny inland streams. That’s why we didn’t get that excited about them, why the promise of low-hanging eagles exerted a stronger pull. Yet, there was something about this group of ducks.

Janet put her finger on the subtle mystery at work when she said, “Aren’t there some white and black ducks mixed in with the black and white ones?” We replied with the only response appropriate to such deep philosophical postulation. When the laughter died down, I pulled out the field guide to show her the difference between male and female bufflehead while Sara and Frank moved on towards their white-pated quarry. The funny thing was, the ducks we were looking at had their identifying white facial spot on the wrong part of their faces. They weren’t petit garrot at all!

A little more looking and page flipping revealed the truth. We were on a new bird for the Core Team, the Common Goldeneye. The goldeneye’s white spot is between its telltale yellow eye and grey beak, rather than behind the eye. Further examination allowed us to note the obvious differences in size and plumage. I love it when a bird looks exactly like its photo in the field guide. These drakes were textbook examples of their species.

We enjoyed the view for another minute or so, but couldn’t get our companions to come back for a second look. Like I said, the siren song of a mighty raptor drowns out most other concerns. We did all get another glimpse of the mixed flock from a higher vantage, and even then the differences were apparent. What did I learn from this little scenario, besides that my aunt sometimes knows what she’s talking about? How about that it doesn’t pay to focus on one bird to the exclusion of all the rest. Surprises are everywhere. I also confirmed what I’ve known all along: the field guide is my friend. There are a few hundred birds that I can identify and many thousands that I can’t. Until that ratio changes dramatically, I’m keeping my guide close at hand.

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.