Tag Archives: geese and swans

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.

Autumn watch

Thursday was the last day of our neighborhood farmers market. It was sunny, windy, and cold. The farmers from Mattapoisett weren’t there; “They said they had nothing to sell,” said Mary, the farmer from Dartmouth. Mary told me about the cafe she’s going to open in Fall River, where she’ll sell her baked goods. “Will you sell produce and eggs?” I asked. “Well, maybe some eggs,” she said. Carol and I bought apples, turnips, squash, and eggs from her. We said goodbye to Mary until July, and then we walked home in the bright sun, talking sadly about how we will miss the farmers market.

Although the farmers market has gone for the year, some of the winter residents have finally begun to return to New Bedford harbor. As I was walking to Fairhaven today along Route 6, I noticed there were some four dozen Brant along with the usual flock of gulls and Mallards that feed where a big culvert drains into the harbor. I stood there in the sun for a while, ignoring the four lanes of traffic rushing along behind me, watching those four dozen small geese who had finally arrived at their winter residence from wherever they spent the breeding season.

Happy 300th birthday

Today is Carl Linnaeus’s 300th birthday. Linnaeus invented binomial nomenclature, those two-part Latin names biologists have for living organisms.

I celebrated Linnaeus’s birthday by going out for a walk.

Just down the street from our apartment, I noticed that several Alianthus altissima — an invasive exotic that can be difficult to eradicate — are springing up near the pedestrian bridge over Route 18, and I wondered if the city would remove them before they overwhelmed all the nearby plants. Then I realized that the nearby plants were Euonymus alatus, an equally pernicious invasive exotic.

On the Fairhaven side of the bridge, the tide was low. Standing on the mud flats I saw quite a few Larus delawarensis and Larus argentatus, and a Larus marinus standing there preening. Two Branta canadensis swam in amongst the gulls.

Happy birthday, Carl Linneaus. For even though using binomial nomenclature in ordinary conversation is a pain in the neck, we still admire your genius as a taxonomist.

Spring watch

Out to Pope’s Island on Sunday for a walk. I saw very few ducks and waterfowl on the harbor. Two months ago, I could stand on Pope’s Island and see hundreds of ducks, loons, and geese; Sunday I saw just two pairs of Bufflehead and one pair of Common Goldeneye; all the rest have left for the season, heading north to wherever they breed.

We always talk about what we gain in spring — flowers, green leaves, warmth — but spring means the end of things too. It’s a poignant moment for me when the trees fully leaf out, and suddenly you can no longer see things you saw all winter. Every year when this happens I can’t help thinking to myself, I can’t wait until the leaves fall off the trees again so I can regain that sense of wide open space.

But spring has been on hold for the past couple of weeks. It’s gotten cool again, with the light snow last Wednesday, and temperatures below freezing the last few nights. The flowers that began to bloom in those warm days two weeks ago are still in bloom; the banks of forsythia bushes along Route 18 are still just barely washed with a haze of a few yellow flowers. I love these cold nights and cool days when spring pauses in its rush towards summer.

How to stay outdoors after dark

This afternoon, I drove out to Concord. In the fields of the old prison farm, a Greater White-Fronted Goose was supposedly hanging around with the geese that usually live there; I wanted to see this resident of the arctic.

There stood the goose, looking odd with its orange bill. I looked at it for a while, and realized I had a little time before dark, so I drove over to the national wildlife refuge a few miles away. I climbed the observation tower there. As I got up onto the observation deck, a boy’s voice said, “Are you a birder?”

I said, “Well, sort of.” The boy was about 12. He was with a man who had binoculars and never used them, but just seemed to be looking at the scenery.

He said, “You see those ducks out there? –what are they? You can see them in the telescope.”

But I already had my binoculars to my eyes, and could see them well enough to say, “Well, they’re probably Ring-necked Ducks.” Then I looked through the big telescope mounted on the observation deck, the same one that was there when I was a boy. I said why I was sure they were Ring-neck Ducks, with that white streak in front of the wings, and the distinctive shape of their heads.

The boy nodded wisely. “Yeah,” he said.

We talked about birds a little bit; the Red-winged Blackbirds were back; ducks were on the move. I asked if he had seen the Greater White-fronted Goose. Behind me, I could feel the man politely rolling his eyes, the way Carol does when she has to endure listening to people talk about birds. The boy was pretty excited to hear about the goose, though he hid it. I told the boy where to see it, but, as is often the case for someone that age, he didn’t have a strong sense of how to get from one place to another. So I told the man, who knew where I meant. The man had a faint European accent; the boy did not.

“We better tell your mother about it,” said the man, which either meant that the boy’s mother was a birder, or this was a ploy to get the boy down off the observation tower.

“Just FYI,” said the boy to the man, as they began walking down the steep stairs, “a Greater White-Fronted Goose is not something you see every day.”

“Not around here, that’s for sure,” I said in parting. The man smiled, a little tightly, but didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t realize that goose had probably flown down here from Greenland.

I wandered over the dike between the two main pools of the refuge, well behind the boy and the two adults. I don’t think his mother was a passionate birder, because they didn’t seem to stop and look at the Northern Shoveler. I took my time, saw a lot of birds, and wound up getting to my car just as the man was trying to get the boy back down off the observation tower and into their car. “Come on,” the man said in his faint accent, “we have to go now.”

Like the boy, I didn’t want to leave. But I had to get back to New Bedford, and with the light fading fast I no longer had the excuse of staying to look at birds. I slid into my car, started the engine and turned on the headlights. When I pulled out, the boy still wasn’t in the car. Maybe he was doing the right thing; so what if it’s too dark to look at birds any more; so what if he was annoying two adults; any excuse to stay outdoors longer.

Maybe I’m getting too responsible.


In the late afternoon, I drove down to the hurricane barrier for a walk. A damp chilling breeze blew down the Achushnet River, and I walked along the outer side of the barrier to stay out of the wind. Out of the wind, the day was pleasant even if it was gray. The Martha’s Vineyard ferry went out through the barrier, scattering ducks and gulls as it picked up speed once in the outer harbor.

On the walk back, I walked down on the windward side of the hurricane barrier. The tide was quite low, low enough that you could walk out to little Palmer Island. As I got onto the island, over a hundred Brant took off together and flew low over the water up the harbor. Ducks were scattered everywhere over the water; a couple of Long-tailed Ducks bobbed in the water up near the Palmer Island lighthouse. The interior of the north end of the island was covered with trash; there was not a square foot that wasn’t covered with trash: a computer monitor without any glass, a square plastic bin, a chunk of foam padding, a worn two-by-four with rusty nails, styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, trash that can’t be identified. In the junipers near the lighthouse, half a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers flew about cheerfully eating juniper berries. Invasive bittersweet and phragmites, dominated the vegetation of the upper end of the island, along with poison sumac; brambles and thorns grew here and there; a small remnant of salt hay grass clung to the east side of the island.

I scrambled off the island before the tide could cover over the mud and sand that connects it to the hurricane barrier; passed a dead horseshoe crab, stepped on a squishy bit of yellow foam, curnched over broken shells and bits of broken glass. I was cold, and hurrying back to the car, but something made me pause and look at one waterbird through the binoculars: a Barrow’s Goldeneye, close enough to see every detail; an uncommon duck that I just didn’t expect to see in the heart of the city.

Merry New Bedford Christmas…

After church today, Carol said we had to go down to the hurricane barrier to look at the harbor. We got down there, and walked to the end of the hurricane barrier and back before the clouds moved in.

The whole fishing fleet is in for the holiday, and through the binoculars we could see them lined up three and four deep along the docks on the Fairhaven side and the New Bedford side of the harbor. The inner harbor was sheltered from the light southerly breeze, and was almost dead flat in places. No boat traffic at all; we saw a seal lolling on the surface right in the middle of the main shipping channel. That was the highlight of our walk for Carol.

Needless to say, I was most excited by the many birds that were out. Carol was very tolerant as I kept stopping to look through the binoculars: “Look!” I’d say, stopping yet again. “Horned Grebes! And a Common Loon just dove under the surface!” There were lots of Buffleheads, and Black Ducks, Scaup, Goldeneye, Long-tailed Ducks, a Mallard or two, Common Mergansers. On the way back, I got a good close look at six Brant, the closest I’ve ever gotten to these small geese. That, of course, was the highlight of our walk for me.

We’ve never seen the harbor so quiet. A delightful moment on this Christmas day. And Merry Christmas to you, wherever you are!


I walked across to Pope’s Island today, and over to Fairhaven. A skim of ice covers the quiet backwaters of the harbor on the Fairhaven side. And on the water by the Holiday Inn Express parking lot, two big white graceful birds: a pair of Mute Swans swimming side by side. I also saw dozens of ducks and geese; the inland waters must be freezing over, driving the waterfowl to the estuaries and bays, where the salt content keeps the water mostly open.

The swans had the usual arrogant way of swimming that Mute Swans seem to have. They know they’re pretty so humans won’t touch them; they know they’re bigger than any other animal on the water. All the ducks and geese were fairly shy, and swam warily away as soon as I got too close; but the swans didn’t care where I stood. If they were human, I would have said they’re show-offs.

Waterfowl list for birders: 40 Canada Geese; 2 Mute Swans; ~12 Mallards; 56 Scaup (prob. Greater); 38 Bufflehead; 1 Common Merganser.