The river in front of my house is now a duck pond. Various sections of the river are frozen bank- to-bank, but here free water flows and water fowl float. It’s a busy sight/site with ducks and geese paddling upstream, cruising back down, taking off into the air with the frequency of planes at O’Hare, and landing again in small squadrons. The mallards come in for their landing with wings bowed, braking their speed just as they hit the water. Canada geese are less elegant, splashing onto the river’s runway in noisy, squawking turmoil.
My favorites at this time of year are the bufflehead (who I may be confusing with golden eye, or maybe we have both). Their radiant white caps make me think of novice nuns. They dip smoothly below the water’s surface, later to bob up again—never in the same place. My eyes scan the river, trying to predetermine where they’ll suddenly surface. I almost never win this game of bufflehead bluff.
At times some ducks leave the water to cluster on the edge of snow-covered ice—not exactly dry land. I have to wonder if they’re warmer, leaving the icy water and hunkering down in the wind-chilled air. I’ll bet they’re warmer in the water. What we don’t see is those webbed feet paddling hard like a cross-country skier following an uphill trail, warmed by the effort.
Occasionally—and suddenly—the pond empties of water fowl. Only small chunks of ice float desolately along the current, destined to join the glacial islands downriver. That’s when I know to look up and search for a bald eagle. Or perhaps some other raptor, an osprey for instance, is temporarily scattering the flocks. In only a few minutes, the ducks will return to resume their routine, up and down, forth and back. They organize themselves like an Esther Williams water ballet, sometimes in straight lines (although those are most often the geese, who have a penchant for the military), other times in complex choreography that unfolds like time lapse photos of flowers blooming.
There is other winter wildlife along the river bank—the hardy birds, of course, and an occasional river otter. The plucky quail scoot in nervous groups, puffed up to twice their miniscule weight to insulate themselves against the cold. I could see more if I would take time away from my ceaseless chores and distractions. Is that a resolve for the new year? Seems like a good one.