On the riverbank

It’s a sunny spring morning on the riverbank, and the birds are spectacularly busy.

Barn swallows zigzag overhead or swoop in long arcs over the water as they snatch insects from the air. When they bring their catch to the nests high in the eaves of the bridge, a cacophony of cries rings forth as their young clamor to be fed.

Red-winged blackbirds trill incessantly from the reeds of a little shoreline wetland and flash their scarlet epaulets as they patrol their territory. Occasionally I hear two of their other voices, a petulant chk-chk-chk and a clear, piercing whistle.

The Canada geese are not disturbed by my presence, but a black duck takes flight, its fast-beating wings taking it low over the water and out of sight upstream. With my binoculars, I pick out a mother mallard leading two fuzzy babies to the bank, the male following alertly.

A dusty-brown mockingbird strolls along a grassy area with its extra-long tail angling up and down as it forages. I get too close, and it flies off, showing the bright white bar on the underside of each dark wing. From a tree it entertains me with a series of polyglot phrases.

On the branches of a dead shrub, two sleek gray catbirds touch bills and then separate, one rummaging through the dry leaves, the other studying me inquisitively. I notice, for the first time ever, the patch of reddish-brown at the base of the catbird’s tail. It lets me get close enough to take a photo. The other one calls gently, not the rasping meow I usually hear but a soft, endearing mew.

A great honking comes from downriver, and I go to see what the geese are up to. I know the superabundance of Canada geese makes them rather a nuisance, but I am fascinated by these beauties. Two couples seem to be having a spat. One pair drifts coolly away. The others retire to the shallows to preen, ducking their heads to throw water over their backs, nuzzling their own flanks, stretching their elegant wings. A single goose comes too close, and one of them rises up to chase it off.

I’ve noticed that geese rarely fly short distances except when they lift themselves over the water to dart at an interloper. Otherwise, they prefer to swim or walk, I suppose because it must take a lot of effort to get those big bodies off the ground or the water. Today, however, there’s something I’ve never seen before. Atop a tree bent over the water sits a goose, about 15 feet up. A challenger flies up and chases it away, taking over the high post. It sits there surveying the 30 or so comrades noodling around below, spread out across the river. Suddenly it honks and flies down at one individual, for no reason that I can detect, and then joins the group to float among the sparks of reflected sunlight, and all is peaceful for a while.

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