I visited Shenango Reservoir last Wednesday with my friend, the waterfowl artist Vince Pagliaroli. It was a cool, sunny day in early March, the kind of prespring afternoon that lures folks out of their dark winter lairs, even if it’s too chilly to go without a hat and gloves.
We parked in the lot above the river and hiked down the overlook trail toward the dam. The hardwood branches above us were still bare of leaves, but the sky was full of sunshine, and promising patches of pale green shoots intermingled with the matted brown winter grass. It was the kind of day that gives you hope: for better weather, better prospects, better days in the outdoors.
“Look,” said Vince just then. “Bald eagles.”
I gazed upward and there they were, two majestic raptors with white heads and white tailfeathers soaring gloriously against the bright blue skies.
“Who’d have thought,” said Vince in admiration, “when we were kids that we’d be seeing bald eagles some day, right here just five minutes from home?”
We continued out onto the top of the dam, looked over to the lake side and spotted four buffleheads — two drakes in brilliant white plumage and two darker hens — a hundred yards away and moving farther out. We hiked quickly up the wooded lakeside trail to a point where the deep brown waters were sheltered from the wind by trees and hillsides and saw dozens more: buffleheads, big-headed and colorful hooded mergansers and four mallards. These were mostly diving ducks, and we watched through binoculars as each bird disappeared under the surface seeking gizzard shad and reappeared seconds later.
“From the first of March through mid-April, you can see migrating ducks come through this area on their way to Canada,” said Vince. “We’re on the western edge of the Atlantic Flyway. Pay attention to the wind if you want to come out and see them. If it’s from the south, the birds will be riding with that wind.”
I’m not much of a waterfowler, but Vince has spent a lifetime hunting and studying ducks and geese across the U.S. and Canada. He is also a talented waterfowl artist and decoy carver whose works are displayed regionally several times a year.
“The fall migration is good,” Vince told me, “but the spring migration is the Super Bowl for Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups. Their handiwork is on display by the thousands. Goldeneyes, pintails, ring-necked ducks, wood ducks and many more. And they come right through here near home. They follow these rivers up like you and I drive on a highway.”
Later, back at the parking lot, I asked Vince, “So, what have you been working on? What did you bring along to show me?”
“A couple things,” he said and then retrieved from his car two recent artistic renditions, a ruddy duck and a redbreasted merganser, both sturdy enough to use on the duck-hunting waters as decoys but also created in exquisite living detail.
I shook my head in wonder.
“We writers work hard to try and tell a story,” I said, “but what you artist guys do is magical. What you create out of nothing is a miracle.”
Vince looked at me for a moment. “You’re an artist, too,” he said. “You have the passion.”
That’s the best compliment I’ve received all year.
“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, March 8, 2009