January 12, 2023
The first thing we notice is a soft gray tuft of downy feathers, resting gently on the snow where no feathers were an hour ago. Then we spot a second tuft of feathers. Nearby is a spot of blood along the edge of the trail. What happened here?
I’m with photographers Lea Frye and Rachel Ritacco this morning, following a trail along the Missouri River near Hauser Dam. A short drive from Helena, Montana, this area is one of relatively few in the surrounding landscape where the water remains unfrozen throughout the winter, providing a haven for wildlife. And although the songbirds have been quiet on this chilly, gray morning, we’ve been able to see the abundance of this place in the diversity of ducks present here. Every so often, flocks of common and Barrow’s goldeneyes sweep past, their wings whistling. We’ve seen a group of common mergansers hunting for fish. Occasionally a few buffleheads dive and resurface, tiny in comparison to the goldeneyes. We’ve passed by small groups of gadwalls and ring-necked ducks, along with the occasional mallard.
Besides the ducks, the morning has been surprisingly quiet. No chickadees, no nuthatches, just the occasional heep call of a Townsend’s solitaire from the Douglas-firs and junipers growing up the slopes below the towering cliffs. Once in a while, we’ve seen a bald eagle flapping heavily past.
Death along the trail
It’s as we’re making our way back along the trail, though, that the winter wildlife reminds us that more is going on here than meets the eye. These downy gray feathers weren’t here when we passed by an hour ago. Neither were the drops of blood. Looking around carefully, we find a cluster of flight feathers resting near the trail, stout and dark gray. They’re asymmetrical and imperceptibly curved, telling us they’ve come from a left wing. They’re far too big for a robin or another songbird. “Could they belong to a rock pigeon?” we speculate. We’ve seen several groups of pigeons today, flying in tight squadrons over the imposing orange cliffs above us.
We take stock of the scene. On one side of the trail, a large Douglas-fir reaches for the sky. The feathers are strewn on the other side, below the tree and down-canyon, the direction the wind has been blowing. We can see a clump of sagebrush just below the trail. Farther down the slope, the opaque green current of the Missouri River slides past.
And what’s that on the far side of the sagebrush? A dark shape is lying on the snow. It’s a bird carcass! Had it not been for Lea’s sharp eyes and the occasional feather on the snow, we would have walked right past it.
We take a closer look. There aren’t any tracks in the soft snow around the carcass. The lack of tracks tells us this isn’t the work of a fox or coyote: the predator that caught this bird had wings.
There’s not very much left of the carcass except for feathers. This hunter was hungry. The head has been removed. Only small tatters of muscle remain. But the right wing is intact, a spread of dark gray flight feathers with a small white square inboard. No rock pigeon has this white square in the wing. This is a duck.
It’s a notably small duck, much more petite than a mallard or a goldeneye. And between the size and the wing patterning, we can be reasonably sure of an identification: this is a female bufflehead (or, alternatively, it could be a young male).
The life and death of a bufflehead
She (or possibly he) hatched into the world within a nest in a hollowed-out tree cavity – probably an old northern flicker hole. She began her life in the mountains of Montana or in the boreal forest to the north. An hour ago, she was diving in the chilly current of the Missouri River, catching aquatic insects or snails. And now she has transformed. Her feathers are a limp pile on the snow, food for beetles and blowflies as spring approaches. The energy of her muscles has become part of a winged predator.
We suspect it was a bald eagle – or perhaps one of the golden eagles that sometimes soars past these cliffs. Presumably it perched in the top of this Douglas-fir as it ate her, her feathers drifting downwards on the canyon breeze.
What is death, anyhow? A tragedy, a loss, a great transformation? Like so many things in nature, it’s beyond knowing. Beyond science. Mysterious.
For me, every time I step outside and wonder at the natural world, it’s an invitation to touch the beyond. We live in a world full of transformation and mystery, birth and death. I can not know what it is to be a bufflehead and die, just as I do not know what it is to be human and die.
Wonder – and artificial intelligence?
This wonder, this sense of the unknowable, is at the heart of my writing. We can’t know what it is to be a chickadee finding almost-invisible insects in a chokecherry. We’ll never be able to comprehend the world through the senses of a silk moth as it transforms from pupa to winged adult, nor stand rooted in the winter cold and summer drought of a hilltop as a cushion plant can. But by stepping outside with a sense of curiosity and humility, we can glimpse the vast, inexplicable beauty of this world we live in.
I recently had a conversation with some close friends about artificial intelligence (AI).
“What is real?” we asked ourselves, “when we live in a world in which AIs drive cars, write essays, and diagnose illnesses?”
From where I sit, we seem to be living in a society in which we’re flooded with messaging. The explosion of information and advertising is overwhelming. Perhaps it leaves us feeling paralyzed. And the presence of misinformation and conflicting stories calls into question what is trustworthy. What is fake and what is real? And although these dynamics preceded the appearance of AIs that can rapidly write essays and computer code, it seems likely that these bots will only intensify them.
Beyond information paralysis
What is real? Perhaps this bufflehead provides an answer. Set your phone down for a while and step outside. Go with a friend or on your own. Pause for a while. Listen. Breathe. The river is real, as are the Douglas-firs and the towering cliffs. The pungent scent of the sagebrush is real, and so are the feathers resting on the snow. The bufflehead is real, though none of us can know what it is to live as this duck does, nor to pass from the body of a bufflehead to whatever lies beyond.
The world is impossibly vast, far beyond what all of our accumulated heap of information and misinformation can tell us. But we can feel this vast world, we can be with it, and we can wonder at it. It’s real. Life and death, love and grief. Buffleheads, and the eagles that eat them. Friendships that go beyond the surface, beyond social media. I’ll see you out there.