Saturday, December 31, 2011

An excerpt from “A Walk on the Levee”

The Northern Shoveler is living proof that the design of living things has room for a sense of humor. It is a most unusual duck, a rare bird, with the green head of a mallard, but a beak that even from a distance appears to be twice the length of its head. ______________

After the hawk’s departure, it wasn’t long before we viewed a great disturbance on the water, far back in the wetland. Our binoculars revealed two male Northern Shovelers engaged in the ritual combat for territory. Shaped by thousands of years of success, and certain to continue for centuries into the future, this battle involved rushing at each other, attempting to push the other under water, and pushing each other, sumo-wrestler style, out to the edge of the pond.
Each round was followed by display, another ritual in which the males circled with heads held high and then began bobbing their heads as if in greeting. Almost like water ballet, this ritual showed both their willingness to enter the battle, and their intentions toward the smaller brown female bird, watching from nearby. Soon the battle was done, and she swam off with the victor in tow.
That was the appearance, but appearances can be deceiving. The vanquished male soon followed, and another round of display and combat ensued. It seems that the rites of spring were not quickly ended.
These observations would have made any day complete, but we had two more sightings waiting for us, perhaps the best of the day. As we continued out the levee, one of my companions pointed out red head ducks – bay ducks that dive for fish. I am not certain what they were doing in a seasonal wetland, where plants are the mainstay of duck diets. Red head ducks are not typically pond inhabitants, but there they were, perhaps resting and preparing to move on north.
Then we saw the blue winged teal, five altogether. These small ducks are cousins of the green wings we had been watching all day, but they never appear here in numbers. Possibly they were up from the bayou country on their early migration to northern marshes. Whatever brought them here, I was delighted to view such unusual creatures on their way north.

“A Walk on the Levee” began as a journal entry recording the events of a March 1 walk on the Brainerd Levee with two bird watching friends. Hellbender Press of Knoxville published the resulting article, the first of several I wrote for them. It led to a regular column.

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