Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’

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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Ducks and drakes celebrate spring

April 9, 2010

I don’t know about the bees, but the birds seem to think spring is here – at least the ducks are in an amorous mood.

Since my discovery of Coles Brook, I’ve taken to doing my laundry in River Edge, around a corner from the brook’s meander towards Hackensack. While the laundry is drying, I wander along the stream, taking note of the level of trash and the clarity – or not – of the water. As I was heading back to the laundromat last week, I heard a commotion coming from the stream, and a loud quacking overhead.

At the edge of the stream, two mallard drakes were fighting. They wrestled and flapped, on the bank and in the water, the female sticking close, almost touching them. Eventually, one of the males climbed onto the back of the other one and held him underwater. When he let go, the loser flew off upstream. The winner promptly followed him.

I looked around to see where the quacking was coming from. A crow, seated on top of a pole, was making strangely duck-like noises. It shut up soon after the drakes disappeared.

The female mallard swam around in the shallows, reared up and flapped her wings, climbed onto a wheeled board stranded in the water. When the victorious male returned, they swam together, the female in front. They did a little preening, a little bill dipping.

A great honking announced the arrival of a pair of Canada geese, which settled onto the water just around the bend. It’s hard to say whether the prospect of being interrupted pushed the male to pounce, but a few moments later, he darted at the female, climbed onto her back, grabbed the nape of her neck in his bill, and for half a minute or so, they wriggled. Then he slid off and released her neck.

They dipped their bills in the water, swam to the shallows and preened. The female put her head underwater, probably seeking a snack, while the male remained alert nearby. I suppose he was guarding his woman against his opponent’s return.

The geese swam idly past, paying little attention, but I was delighted to have witnessed wild duck love, right in River Edge.

Animal tracking, my favorite winter sport

February 26, 2010

On a sunny morning, I head across the recently renewed snow cover to see what the creatures have been up to in the little nature preserve behind my house. I follow deer tracks to a spot where they’ve pawed up the snow down to the leaves and even some dirt, looking perhaps for acorns.

The many deer trails crisscross, knotting together under a loose thicket of bare-branched shrubs, where I find several piles of deer scat. Alongside the thicket is a patch of broadleaf evergreen shrub. Were they here to dine? But I don’t see twigs of the evergreen nipped off. Ah, but beneath the bare twigs is a roughly triangular depression in the snow, shaped like a deer with its legs folded up and its head curved around to rest on its knees. Two more lays are in evidence a few feet away. While the thicket doesn’t look like a lot of protection, maybe its deer-colored twigs add an element of camouflage.

I’m thinking about the fact that I always see lots of cloven tracks here but almost never see actual deer, except from inside the house. It could be that I even frightened deer from these very lays a few minutes ago—the tracks look pretty fresh. I’m not making any effort to be quiet—too difficult in this crunchy snow. Suddenly I recall something I learned from a tracking teacher about “soft-focus eyes” or “splatter vision”—the act of slightly unfocusing the eyes to take in more peripheral vision rather than concentrating on a spot directly in front. Although I learned this technique years ago, I have totally forgotten about it and virtually never use it. Well, I think, it’s worth a try.

I cast my gaze across the woods and turn my head, letting my eyes soften. Immediately—I mean, within one second—I see a flicker of brown against brown, far off among the trees. It disappears. I keep looking at the area, continuing to soften my vision, and after a few moments, portions of several deer appear, shifting uneasily, white tails wavering. There’s a road nearby, and I don’t want to flush them out into traffic, so I retreat, hoarding my recovered skill like a delightful little surprise.

I head over to a den hole I discovered last year, where I detect a bit of recent activity. Dirt from inside the hole is scattered over footprints leading away. The tracks are too small for a fox—my tape measure says one inch wide and a bit longer. The prints are blurred from yesterday’s thaw and the uneven terrain, so I can’t make out much detail. From the snow, I pluck a wavy black hair. A few feet away on the ridge trail is a small, gooey scat. I poke at it with a stick, and a skunklike scent rises up. I’m not going to say definitively that this creature was a skunk, but the odds are pretty good.

Bucks in the back yard

January 22, 2010

My house in uber-suburban Bergen County is surrounded on three sides by a small nature preserve, so I get to see wildlife meandering through my back yard. At the same time, there’s a four-lane street with cars zooming by at 40 mph about 10 feet from my front door, so I never forget that I’m not in the country.

This winter a pair of white-tailed bucks, six-pointers, have been frequent visitors to the yard. Yesterday afternoon they were lying in the periwinkle (also known as vinca, a ground cover with leathery, evergreen leaves) under a huge pine tree. They lay parallel, about 20 feet apart, facing the woods. Apparently there’s less danger to fear from the house than the woods in this hunterless region.

When I crept out and started snapping pictures, the deer slowly stood up and gazed at me, intermittently licking their flanks and scratching their heads with a hind hoof.

After about five minutes, they ambled to the edge of the trees, where they engaged in a bit of mock fighting, lowering their heads and audibly clanking their antlers together. Then they wandered west, with an occasional pause to turn their heads back and eye me suspiciously as I sneaked closer with my camera.

Later my daughter, while looking out her bedroom window, saw one of them with a doe. The buck kept ducking his head and trying to trap the doe’s head between his antlers. She would allow him to encircle her head for a moment and then back away. Another doe stood nearby, watching.

In my ten years living in the Catskills, surrounded by miles of woods, I saw wildlife fairly often, but not in the quantity that I encounter here in the suburbs — and I certainly never saw bucks dueling, even in play, or deer couples courting. Across the street from one end of the preserve is a park that connects to the Greenway along the Hackensack River, so the deer have plenty of space to roam. Ground hogs trundle across the park lawns in summer, squirrels and Canada geese abound, and local rabbits are much less cautious than their mountain cousins.