River Ritual

With crisp, radiant yellows and purples adding a colorful splash to the marshes, and presses prepared to crank out sweet fall cider, I must say it has thus far been an odd  September. Peculiar indeed. First, unseasonably cool temps, now perplexing foliage developments.

Have you noticed sugar maples shedding drab-colored leaves prematurely, before they even show a hint of their normal autumn splendor? Seems awfully early to me. But why? There was more than enough spring and summer rain to keep our trees healthy, and we’re still awaiting our first frost. Nonetheless, with October still more than a week away, a man could justify firing up his leaf blower. Very weird.

We’ll have to monitor this situation in the weeks to come, see what happens with the oaks, the beeches, the front-yard Japanese maples cresting  to their scarlet crescendo. Something just seems amiss. What, I can’t yet put my finger on.

Meanwhile, the squirrel season is here, and soon upland and lowland hunters will be silently sitting in deer stands, busting up turkey flocks to entice back with regrouping calls, chasing rabbits with baying beagles, and wing-shooting pheasant, partridge, woodcock and waterfowl alike. Which leads me to an interesting weekend sighting in the Green River. Wearing my Keen Newport sandals to walk the river through knee-and waist-high water with the dogs, we were rollicking upstream toward a large red rock along the east bank that exudes spiritual aura.

Lily and Chubby were visibly happy about my decision to walk up the river. Their enthusiasm showed in their gait as soon as I walked to the west bank and entered the water along a placid section of shallow, silt-bedded flat-water. They love river romps and displayed their enthusiasm by racing upriver along the banks and briefly into the woods, joyously swimming through the deep spots, always searching for scents to investigate and chase. I too enjoy such activity, particularly watching the dogs and interpreting their responses to habitat stimuli, myself always on the lookout  for slimy rocks and creepy critters.

We pass the first bend and, crossing an ankle-high riffle on an angle, something ahead catches my eye. I stop, look upward and — Wow! — a large bald eagle has flushed from a riverside hardwood limb 50 yards upstream. Its fanned white tail and white head are dead identification giveaways. Had it just stayed on its quiet perch, we would likely have walked right past the big bird of prey and proud patriotic symbol without detecting it. He or she. who knows? All I can say is that it was large. Graceful, too. Its wide wingspan looked even larger as it flew away, tunneling through the narrow, canopied river corridor.

The dogs didn’t miss it. Not a chance. They both stopped, Chub-Chub beneath the tree from which the majestic bird flew, old mother Lily, worn but still spry and happy, just across the narrow riffle from me. As the eagle leaned elegantly into a gentle bend curling leftward toward the spirit rock where people swim and chill, sudden commotion flushed from the river. As the eagle passed them, six common mergansers took off, flushing downstream right at me, flying low and fast.

Chub-Chub saw them. In fact, I’d bet he knew they were there before they flew. He has an incredible nose and has been playing with that hen and drake and their brood for a couple of months now. He searches for them daily, finding them two or three times a week up and down the river.

Many times, when the wind’s just right, I’ve seen Chub-Chub catch scent of those mergansers from 100 yards away, maybe more, and get all jacked up looking for them. Once he’s got them marked, he excitedly charges into the river, often bouncing on all fours, head high, on an all-out freakin’ mission. I soon hear a whoosh of wings and tell-tale quack-quack-quacking, with alert Chubby in dogged, splashy pursuit, all fired-up and showy. Early-on during what has become a continuing saga, the hen and drake would flush loudly and fly low and slow to tease the dogs away from their skittering goslings, who could fly just good enough to stay ahead of the dogs. Then, as the little ones got their wings, they’d all flush together and flee, perhaps 10 or 12, all gone in an instant, usually upstream. When Chubby knew he had no chance of catching them, he’d freeze in a classic gundog pose, standing either onshore or in the shallows, watching, his white, quarter-docked tail wagging with excitement. Other times he’d swim furiously, breathing hard, determined to catch up before reluctantly conceding defeat.

In recent weeks, I had noticed that the brood seemed to be diminishing. What started off as 10 little ones was dwindling down to eight and six and now, on this latest sighting, four or five. Not sure if  there was one or two adults. I figured either snapping turtles or coyotes or bobcats or, yes, maybe birds of prey were randomly picking them off. But how could I be sure? Then, there it was, a bald eagle, a very likely culprit once the little ones had grown into a worthwhile meal. That eagle was definitely perched right there along the riverbank waiting for that unsuspecting brood to drift into the killing field. The dogs and I had interrupted the bird’s lunchtime hunt, likely saving an unfortunate, luck-of-the-draw merganser.

The young are now indistinguishable from the adults when flying. Maybe when swimming, too. I can’t say I worry much about predation. Enough brood members always survive to sustain a viable population, while predators eat enough to survive and feed their young. It’s not about death and killing. It’s about life and living.

Call it Mother Nature’s way — with humans often the great disrupters, who just have a way of throwing the whole process totally out of whack.

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