Swimming Upstream

Photo by David F. Smith

The Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata) inhabits fast-moving, boulder-strewn rivers and streams high in the Andes of South America. To me, these churning, chilling, deafening waterscapes are frightening to behold. A Torrent Duck is the avian equivalent of a white-water kayak, and, as the master of its own craft, it far outperforms any human kayaker. When feeding, it swims upstream – yes, against the current – diving into standing waves, boofing over boulders, surfing wave holes, ferrying from eddy to eddy. Somehow it is not swept downstream as it treads water while plunging its head or entire body underwater to nibble benthic invertebrates on submerged rock faces. The duck makes these maneuvers look like a breeze. It is designed for torrents. Evolution is elegant, clever, and bold. It leaves no niche, even the most treacherous, unfilled.

Late in the afternoon on February 19, 2020, David and I were standing on a footbridge over the Río Papallacta, as it frothed and roared down the vertiginous eastern versant of the Andes in Ecuador: Torrent Duck territory. The river runs through Guango, an eco-lodge where we would spend the last two nights of our nearly month-long trip to Ecuador.

There was something indelible about the afternoon, the emerald green of the cloud forest, the swirling silvery mists of neblina, the gun-metal gray rapids, the beckoning bridge, the roar. Perhaps I was in a heightened state of not wanting the trip to be over.

I was not counting on seeing a Torrent Duck and seeing one was not requisite for my happiness. Daniel Yanacallo had told us about the bridge. He is on the staff at Guango, a tall tree of a man, smiling, and serene, it seemed to me, in fielding the incessant queries of birders. He had told us to walk downstream to the bridge and just maybe in the late afternoon, when the ducks make a last foray to feed, we might catch a glimpse, but because of recent heavy rains, he said, the Papallacta was running high and fast, a bit much even for a bird that is a kayak.

We stood on the bridge for the next 45 minutes and this is what happened. I was looking downstream where at a distance of perhaps 200 meters the river took a bend. On a boulder at the bend I saw a speck. I put my binoculars on it – a Torrent Duck, a male. Even though it was far away, I could not imagine our good fortune. It stood there nonchalant, preening a bit, looking one way then the other. We watched for perhaps five minutes then out of the blue or rather out of the churn a female popped up onto the boulder next to him. Even from this distance, we could see their ruby-red bills and exquisite plumage, he boldly black, white, and gray, she similarly patterned above but rich cinnamon on her breast and belly. I cannot remember how long we watched them. I think I recall one or both of them plunging off the boulder briefly than returning to perch side-by-side, looking one way, then the other, like a couple just home from work having a late-afternoon conversation about what was for dinner.

Then, by god, they hurled themselves off the boulder and began swimming upstream. Towards us, I was thinking, they are coming towards us. Now I really couldn’t believe our good fortune.

They advanced upstream as if pulling themselves up a ladder, one rung, a pause, then the next rung, and so forth. Each pause they perched atop a boulder or cluster of boulders. They kept to the boulder path along the bank overhung in some places by vegetation. They did not swim in the middle churn of the river. Sometimes they disappeared as if swallowed by the stream – this made me anxious – and then astoundingly they reappeared. It was like watching a magician do a card trick.

David was taking photographs and videos. I was glued to my binoculars. I said to him, but I am not sure he heard me over the roar of the river, “I hope we can come back here someday when they have young.” I added this to the list of reasons why we had to come back to Ecuador.

Maybe five or ten minutes passed. The pair kept advancing the aqueous ladder. Perhaps they were 100 meters downstream from the bridge. Suddenly a third duck materialized from the swirl, then a fourth. By god, a family of Torrent Ducks.

The young were slightly smaller than their parents. They had black bills. Their feet had pumpkin-orange webbing. Their plumage was an elaborate chevron-pattern of black, white, and gray. They seemed as adept in the water as the adults, although once I recall one of them had a bit of a struggle leaping out of the current onto a boulder. At times one or all of them, parents and young, were out of sight longer than I would have liked. I worry about a lot of things, but I particularly worry about birds raising young. In a world of ever-shrinking habitat, autocrats dismantling environmental regulations, global climate change, and a general ignorance or indifference about the natural world among overpopulating Homo sapiens, so much is going against them.

The family kept coming. Soon they were right beneath us. From our bridge vantage, for a brief while, we could look straight down on them. I remember, although it seems dreamlike, watching a few times as a parent or young grazed on imperceptible aquatic larvae on a submerged rock face, water pouring over the boulder and the duck like quicksilver. Their bills seemed flexible, as if made of rubber.

Before we knew it, the family swam under the bridge and continued upstream. They grew smaller. They were gone. The Papallacta roared. The light was fading. It was damp and chilly. We headed back to Guango where we knew a glowing wood stove awaited us.

This entry was posted in Ecuador. Bookmark the permalink.