Tag Archives: diving ducks

Spring watch

A few of us went up to a gospel concert in Norton yesterday, and as we were walking back to our cars after the concert, we could hear the spring peepers singing away in the swamp next to the parking lot. We all agreed that the spring peepers haven’t yet started singing down along the coast, presumably because it’s cooler next to the ocean.

Most of the waterfowl have left the harbor, but I did see six pairs of Buffleheads this afternoon. I suspect these are not birds that wintered over here, but rather birds that are migrating north and just happened to stop here for a day; perhaps they got stranded due to the strong north winds that were blowing the past two days.

Standing at the end of State Pier today, I saw two Harbor Seals surface quite close to the pier. They stayed quite close to one another, and at one point they twined their necks together, then slipped under water together. I’ve never seen seals behave in quite this way. I don’t know anything about the mating behavior of Harbor Seals (the only reference work I have on mammals covers land mammals, including order Sirenia but leaving out pinnipeds), but I wonder if what I saw was mating behavior.

Autumn watch

We got up early so we could take a walk before we started driving up to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. It was unusually calm; in places the water of the harbor was almost completely smooth, in other places it was barely riffled by the smallest breeze; the barges, cranes, fishing boats, and heavy machinery along the Fairhaven side of the harbor were beautifully reflected where the water was still. Some blue sky began to show in the west, and it grew bright enough to cast shadows. Carol decided to turn back about halfway to Fairhaven. A dozen or so Buffleheads bobbed in the water between Pope’s Island and Fairhaven, the black and white of the males showing brilliantly in the growing sunlight. A couple of roofers stood on the flat roof of the old motel on Route 6, ripping up the old roofing; supposedly the new owner of the building is going to renovate it, and reopen it. I kept walking, but by that point my mind settled down and stopped thinking.

Autumn watch

Out, as usual at this time of year, about an hour before sundown. I went out behind our building to look at our little raised bed of Swiss chard. The cold snap of the past few days has pretty much conquered the chard. One or two plants were still standing up, but the rest had fallen over, and the leaves had a dull look, no longer the bright shiny yellow-green of early this week. I planted the seeds too late, and even though it stayed unseasonably warm up until a few days ago, there weren’t enough hours of daylight to allow the plants to flourish. They never got much bigger than three inches tall. Late last week, Carol said we could eat them even though they were small. Lulled by the weeks of warm weather, I decided to wait. And now the plants are pretty close to dead.

I got to the Fairhaven side of the harbor, and walked into the parking lot of the motel right off Route 6. I was walking towards a black pickup truck when I saw a small head peering over the hood at me. It was a Mute Swan. It had extended its neck all the way up, until it was nearly five feet high. When I got around to the other side of the truck, there was its plump white body waddling around on big black webbed feet; its neck, incredibly long when sticking straight up, accounted for about two thirds of its height. I walked past it quickly — Mute Swans can be aggressive, and I didn’t relish the idea of having an absurd-looking bird pecking me in the chest. I walked down to the edge of the parking lot, and there, squinting into the setting sun, I saw a flock of Buffleheads — the cold weather had finally driven some of the wintering waterfowl to the ocean.

On the way back, I walked through the park on Pope’s Island, startling a couple dozen gulls into flight. They settled down and fluffed out their feathers. As I passed the little playground in the park, there was a used condom lying on the ground, torn and disintegrating. I thought, What a hell of a place to have sex, so cold and bleak. Then I thought, Well maybe that condom has been there since summer when it was warm. Then I thought, Even if it was warm, it’s still a hell of a place to have sex. Much better to have sex in a nice comfortable bed.

I paused briefly to watch a reefer ship being unloaded at the Maritime Terminal. A couple of people were standing around, maybe on break, dressed in coveralls and hardhats. I remember those first really cold days of late fall, when you’re working an outdoors job — it was always tough for me to get used to it. Then after a few days you get accustomed to it, and it feels good. I miss working outside in winter. True, when it gets really cold, well below freezing, it wears you down. Even then, it’s better than sitting indoors all winter long, except for the hour you can steal to get outside and take a walk.

Spring watch

When I came down and looked at my car this morning, it was covered with a faint yellow haze of pollen.

The Herring Gulls that live on our rooftop are noisily amorous most of the day. I stuck my head up out of the skylight once and surprised them in the act. I was embarrassed, they were just pissed off.

One of the realities of living in a sea-side city is that when you walk down the streets on a damp spring day like today, every building seems to exude a faint moldy smell.

The sea ducks and loons have mostly headed north to breed. The seals have swum off to wherever it is that they breed. Now when I stand on the end of State Pier and look out, the surface of the harbor is empty, except for a few gulls.

I came around a corner and looked up at a tree covered in white blossoms. Right in the middle of the city, surrounded by drab stone buildings. It took my breath away.

Spring watch

Standing on Pope’s Island this afternoon, I saw both a few last winter residents and one of the first summer residents. A pair of Buffleheads, perhaps the last of the ducks who wintered on the harbor, swam and dove in the water around the city marina, not far from the first of the recreational boats that appeared in the slips this week. Further out in the middle of the harbor, a Cormorant, one of the first summer residents to arrive in the harbor, flapped heavily and rose from the water where it had been holding its wings up to dry.

Late last week, the harbor was still full of wintering waterfowl. On Thursday, when the temperatures went up into the seventies, I walked over to the boat landing in Fairhaven. There I stood and counted more than thirty Brant, two dozen Buffleheads, and perhaps a dozen Red-Breasted Mergansers; and all the while, a Mockingbird sang lustily from a nearby tree. The waterfowl must have taken that warm day as a warning call for spring migration, because since then I haven’t seen more than a dozen waterfowl on any one day; and today I only saw those two Bufflehead.

More eventful than usual

Carol and I went for a walk late this afternoon. It was a dreary gray day. We were on Pope’s Island heading across the bridge towards Fairhaven when we noticed a police car parked in the middle of the bridge. A police officer was standing in the sidewalk gesturing for us to cross to the sidewalk on the other side of the bridge; he was standing behind some of that yellow tape the police use to block off crime scenes.

As we stood there waiting for a break in the four lanes of traffic so we could cross to the other sidewalk, Carol told me that what she had read on the Web site of the New Bedford Standard-Times: that yesterday evening someone had seen someone walking along the bridge carrying a rope; that later police had found an empty noose tied to the railing of the bridge; that police divers were searching the water under the bridge.

As we passed the place where the police car was parked, another New Bedford police car pulled up. And a uniformed police officer sat on a dock over on our side of the bridge. “They must still have divers in the water,” said Carol.

When we got to Fairhaven, we turned down Middle Street. In the parking lot of the Fairhaven VFW, we saw four black-and-white Fairhaven police cars, one unmarked car with its blue lights flashing, a state police car, and several other cars. There were two tripods with video cameras standing on the sidewalk, and there was a man with a video camera on his shoulder further in the parking lot. There were perhaps thirty or forty bystanders spread out around the VFW parking lot: a couple standing on the porch of one of the apartments on the left, several people standing on the sidewalk in front, several more standing around the liquor store to the right of the VFW, and even more people standing on Bridge Street on the other side of the liquor store.

We had no idea what had happened, but it was pretty obvious that nothing was really going on any more. When we got back home, the Standard-Times Web site had a brief story: at 10:40 p.m. yesterday evening, police responded to a large fight somewhere around Bridge, Main, and Middle Streets (the Standard-Times reported that the fight took place at “the intersection of Middle and Main Streets,” but Middle and Main parallel each other). Three men received serious knife wounds; one of those died this morning after being flown to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston.

But we didn’t know all this until we returned home. We walked past the VFW and down to the harbor so I could look at some ducks. “They’re Buffleheads,” said Carol, while I was still trying to figure out what kind of ducks they were. “You’re right,” I said, “but I thought you didn’t like birding.” She smirked and said, “Yup, but I can see better than you.”

Then we walked home, past the people standing around the Fairhaven VFW, past the two police cars on the bridge to Pope’s Island, and then around the little park on the south side of Pope’s Island. “What’s that!” said Carol. A hawk flew clumsily away from us, keeping low to the ground. It reappeared on the other side of a big clump of rose bushes. Carol pointed to a big pile of feathers. “It caught a pigeon,” I said. “Let’s see if we can sneak up behind it and figure out what kind of hawk it is.”

We walked quietly around the clump of rose bushes, and there was the hawk sitting on the ground staring back at us: brown back, about the size of a crow, probably an immature Cooper’s Hawk. I thought it would immediately fly away when it saw us, but it didn’t. Then I saw the bright red in between its feet: it was clutching the carcass of the dead pigeon. No wonder the hawk had flown so clumsily away from us; no wonder it didn’t fly away while we were staring at it; it was holding on to its dinner. We watched the hawk for a minute or two, but it obviously wasn’t going to start eating again until we went away.

We walked on home. The sun came out as we walked across the swing span bridge onto Fish Island. We stopped to talk to someone we know; we waved to Russell at the Fish Island gas station. It was a more eventful walk than usual.

Late fall

There are many things that I like about this time of year. I like it when the leaves are finally off the trees, and it feels as if you can really see the truth of the landscape and the cityscape. I like seeing the winter waterfowl on the harbor: I saw my first Buffleheads of the season, bobbing in the chop kicked up by the cold north wind. Even though I chill easily, I like the feel of the cold air.

But there is one thing that I truly dislike about this season. I hate the sappy versions of Christmas music that you hear in supermarkets and malls and just about every retail establishment. Christmas carols do not translate well into light rock. The Christmas songs from the 1940’s and 1950’s do not translate well into Musak, or whatever horrendous brand of eviscerated pseudo-music a particular store happens to be playing. I dread going into stores at this time of year, becauses I hate having to listen to debased Christmas music they all play.

‘Tis the season to not go shopping. ‘Tis the season to freeze your butt off outdoors, or to sit at home with a good book from the library.

The light of the sun hanging low over the western side of New Bedford harbor practically blinded me; when I got closer to the water, it reflected up off the flat surface of the water, and I had to look down. Down at the asphalt pavement littered with broken shells left when the gulls dropped a quahog or a mussel to break it open and reveal the tender mollusc body inside. Broken shells and some bones, picked clean, probably bones of a small gull — that bone looked like a humerus, that one perhaps an ulna — and the tail end of a fish skeleton, left by returning sport fisherman, and picked clean by the gulls.

Out on the still surface of the water, sea ducks dove underwater to catch small fish. The fish in the harbor are filled with toxic waste, PCBs, which will accumulate in the fat of the ducks. The fish in the harbor are evolving to become tolerant of the toxic waste, although it took many generations of fish and lots of death to get there. The same will probably happen to the ducks.

A breeze riffled the surface of the harbor. I turned away from the sun. Three gulls flew away at my sudden movement. One immature gull, too stupid to know when to fly away, stayed, facing the sun behind my back. No haze to soften outlines or hide sharp edges: I could see each feather on its head.

The ducks aren’t bothered by the traffic on the highway. They see me and fly low across the water, their wingtips tapping its calm surface. On Pope’s Island, I can see every detail of a Lark Sparrow hiding in the bushes, even though I have forgotten my binoculars: the harlequin pattern of its head, the clear breast with a dark spot in the center.

Walking west, the sun blinds me and forces me to look away. Then it dips behind the city, the few last rays lighting up the top of the old New Bedford Hotel dimmed by clouds moving in from the west, and the sun sets for the last time on this year.

Late fall

I took a long walk this afternoon, out to Fort Phoenix beach in Fairhaven. The wintering waterfowl have returned to the waters around Fort Phoenix: goldeneye, mergansers, loons, Brant, scaup, Bufflehead, grebes. I found myself crossing the bridge from Fairhaven to New Bedford just after sunset.

It had been a warm day, but as soon as the sun disappeared it started to get cold. The sky was one of those clear skies that you get in late fall or winter, and in the west it glowed orange-gold. I could see low dark clouds along the sourthern horizon, probably a bank of fog out to sea. I stopped at the Dunkin Donuts on Pope’s Island for a small decaf and a plain doughnut, and I watched it get dark while I sat there desultorily reading the newspaper. Not even five o-‘clock yet, and already dark.

Except that when I went back outside, it wasn’t completely dark. The sky was still bright from the setting sun. The moon, just a few days past new, added its own brilliance to the sky. Even though I was walking along a four-lane highway in the middle of the city, it all felt just a little bit magical.