Posts Tagged ‘Canada geese’

On the riverbank

June 6, 2010

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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Found: Coles Brook

January 29, 2010

Coles Brook is a small creek that empties into the Hackensack River at New Bridge Landing, once the site of a tide-powered mill and a wharf that serviced boats transporting goods up and down the river.

One day I was watching Canada geese noodle around the mouth of the brook, and I wondered where the rest of it was. In my travels around Hackensack and River Edge, I had never noticed a body of water flowing among the buildings. Maybe it just vanished underground! I decided to track down Coles Brook.

On a nippy afternoon, I set out on my bicycle, crossed the Old New Bridge, and noted where the brook passed behind some apartment buildings, its bank inaccessible due to a chain link fence. I could see the culvert conveying the stream under Hackensack Avenue, a six-lane throughfare leading to two malls, 1/8 mile down the road.

Across the avenue, I parked my bike in the lot beside the train station, and stepped into a narrow, litter-strewn patch of woods. There I discovered a five-story parking garage that formed the opposite bank of the brook. A dozen geese drifted in its meager current. I picked my way through the scraggly trees and around the bend of the stream to see it flow into its next culvert, beneath the railroad tracks and under Johnson Avenue.

On the other side of Johnson, I picked up the brook between a line of two-story apartments and the back yard of a building supply store on Route 4. The stream was about 20 feet across at this point and up to a foot deep. Despite the trash adorning its banks, the water was surprisingly clear. I could see every rock, stick, hubcap, and chunk of plastic on the stream bottom.

On the grass behind the apartment buildings, six geese were foraging. I moved forward slowly, so as not to alarm them. Instead of retreating, they all turned and walked toward me. When I failed to toss out any stale bread, they wandered away. Occasionally, they would dip their heads in an odd little gesture, followed by a movement of their bills. Sniffing the air? Communicating in some subsonic mode?

In the strip of woods beside the stream, three squirrels were cavorting in a spiral chase around a tree trunk. Two of them crawled out a branch to nearly the end, their weight lowering the branch to a power line that paralleled the stream. The lead squirrel leapt onto the cable, and from there to a tree on the other side of the stream.

The lightened branch sprang up into the air, Squirrel #2 hanging on. It made a daredevil leap for another twig, but couldn’t reach the power line. Finally it found the right branch and followed its friend across the stream.

There is so much to see along Coles Brook!

Waterfowl: chinstraps, dabbling, and more

December 24, 2009

One of my favorite activities in fall and winter, when much of nature has gone into hiding, is watching waterfowl, which don’t seem to have a big problem with cold water. Feeding wild ducks and geese is frowned upon, but along the shores of public lakes, where visitors entertain their children with scatterings of stale bread, the water birds are available for close-up viewing, even to the breadless. I recently enjoyed a visit to Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn, where mallards, Canada geese, swans, and seagulls are drawn magnetically to any human who approaches the water’s edge. As usual, I was surprised to observe details I had never noticed before.

What makes Canada geese so striking in appearance is the chinstrap—the white marking that goes under the throat and up the sides of the black head. Individual chinstraps vary in shape. Some are nearly triangular, some are flat-topped, some have a sort of knob at the top, and others have a notch below the knob. If one wanted to identify individual birds by appearance, the shape of the chinstrap would be a good place to start.

I must have seen the tails of male mallards before, but now I noticed two curved sets of feathers on the top side of the tail.

Some distance from shore, a flock of northern shovelers—small ducks of the type known, like mallards, as “dabblers”—swam in circles. The males were brown and white, with iridescent green heads and long dark bills. The females were a mottled brown. At moments, a pair—male and female—would swim together in a circle, head to tail, dipping their bills in the water. Generally there were about a dozen in a general scrum, most of them moving either clockwise or counter-clockwise, the rotation shifting as individuals changed direction. It looked like they were setting up a pattern of centrifugal movement in the water and then feeding on the result. The Internet informs us that the shoveler feeds by passing water through its bill, which contains comblike filtration structures along the sides.

A great blue heron flew low over the water and landed in the reeds at one end of the lake. It stood there for a long time, its gray plumage barely discernible against the reeds. Although the plants were tan, it was the same intensity of color as the bird, which, at a distance, faded into the background. What stood out for me was a horizontal white line, which turns out to be the bird’s chin—although the beak is yellow-orange, the lower part of the head is white, and it supports the long bill, extending partway along the bill’s narrow length.

These little details appear only after long contemplation, helping one settle into the calm of (mostly) unhurried nature. I like to seek out details when my mind resists rest.