Tag Archives: loons

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.

On giving up

Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine

It stopped raining late this morning, and by early evening the sky was almost entirely clear. With clear skies and a light wind, the conditions on Saco Bay were the best they’ve been all week. I decided to try to paddle to Eagle Island, about a mile off shore.

By six o’clock, I was pushing the canoe into the light surf. I waded out up to my thighs, jumped in the canoe, and started paddling. There were a few large cloud masses off to the southeast which might become thunderheads, but they were well to the south and moving away from me. I felt a light offshore wind on my back, just enough to ruffle the surface of the water. I figured the offshore wind would probably ease off towards sunset, so conditions looked good all around. I started paddling for the island.

When I was about halfway there, I saw a Common Loon off the port bow. I fumbled with binoculars — an old pair with broken eye cups, which would be no great loss if they got soaked — and as I fumbled, I realized that the bow of the canoe was slewing to port just as a particularly big swell came at me. I let the binoculars drop on their cord, grabbed the paddle, and brought the bow into the wave. It was suddenly clear that I couldn’t stop paddling, for if the canoe drifted broadside to the waves, the waves had gotten big enough that it would be easy to go over.

I kept paddling, and the swells kept getting larger. They were getting big enough that I began to worry how I would turn the canoe around. At first, I hoped that if I got on the landward side of Eagle Island, I’d be sheltered from the waves and it would be easy to turn around. But the farther out into the bay I got, the bigger the swells got. When I rode up and over one particularly big swell — about two feet high, and steeper than before — I gave up on Eagle Island, and looked for an opportunity to turn the canoe. Several good sized waves, then a short interval with small waves — I turned the canoe as fast as possible, and began paddling for shore.

But I wasn’t ready to go back yet. Once I got back to where the swells diminished in size, I decided to paddle over to the mile-long jetty that protects the channel of the Saco River. Sometimes Harbor Seals swim along the jetty — seeing a seal would be a nice consolation prize. The offshore breeze began to stiffen. I got near the jetty, reached for the binoculars to look at some Least Terns flying overhead — the wind blew me right towards the jetty. I grabbed the paddle and dug into the water to pull myself away the sharp rocks of the jetty.

That was enough. I paddled for home. It was tough going. With only one person in the canoe, the bow rode high, and it was hard work to keep it pointed just off the wind. I had to push myself harder than I liked. I rode a wave up onto the sand, jumped out, and grabbed the canoe to pull it out of the water. Muscles from my thighs up through my shoulders were quivering from the hard paddling — I just couldn’t lift the canoe right then, so I dragged it up the beach out of reach of the waves. A few more scratches on the bottom of the canoe wouldn’t hurt.

Eventually I carried the canoe up off the beach. Marty, the fellow who’s leading a sea-kayaking workshop here this week, saw me. “How’d it go?” he said.

“Well, I got two thirds of the way to Eagle Island,” I said. “But when the swells got higher than the gunwales of the canoe, it was time to turn back.”

He just laughed, and continued to tie his sea kayak on the roof of his car. His kayak would have ridden those swells with ease, of course. If I had had another experienced person in the canoe with me, I might have tried for the island, and paddling along the jetty wouldn’t have been a problem. But it was just me, in a too-small open canoe, with waves that got too big, and wind that got too stiff — so I gave up.

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.

April on Pope’s Island

After a six-month’s absence, a dozen or so of the recreational boats have returned to their summer slips in the Pope’s Island Marina.

Gray and faintly yellow clouds move over me, a few drops of rain. I stand, waiting and watching, and sure enough, a faint end of a rainbow after the clouds move past. Humid spring air diffuses the bright sun low over the city, and everything shimmers faintly, and things far away from me are bluish, blue-er, blue-and-gray. The huge clouds looming and moving in a sky so big it’s almost hard to look up.

Fourteen gulls watch, from a safe distance, as three people eat a picnic on one of the concrete benches looking out at the marina. I can smell the food as I walk closer. One gray-and-white gull rushes two immature gulls, driving them away with outstretched wings. The other gulls watch the people intently; they haven’t seen a picnic in a while.

A lone man in a faded orange sweatshirt stands on the rocks below the bridge, snaps a fishing rod over his head, casts into the clear water of the harbor, and jerkily reels in his plug. He doesn’t bother to look at me as I walk above him.

Away up in the inner harbor, the silhouette of one last loon who has not flown north yet. It dives under the surface of the water bright with the white gold light of setting sun, a liquid reflection that hurts my eyes. I never see it come back up again.

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.

Spring watch: loon

Drove down to the New Bedford end of the hurricane barrier, parked the car, and walked out. Low gray clouds, a stiff northerly breeze, a spattering of rain now and again. It was cold enough that I put my hood up and kept my gloves on; not a day to believe that spring is coming.

On my way back from the far end of the hurricane barrier, I stopped to look at a Common Loon in the water below me. It was quite close, close enough to see individual feathers through the binoculars. The loon was in the process of molting: the checkerboard pattern already clear on its back, the head becoming all black again as the white winter feathers on the throat came out. Soon the molt will be complete, and with its new set of feathers the loon will start to fly north, away from its wintering ground here in New Bedford harbor, to raise young loons on some lonesome lake in Canada. I could see, at least in imagination, the whole progress of spring written in the patchy feathers on its head.

Ice out

Carol and I walked around Fresh Pond in Cambridge this afternoon. It must have been 70 degrees; sunny, too.

The ice is off about half of Fresh Pond. A stiff breeze was blowing across the pond, and on the windward side, you could hear the ice crunching along the edge of the pond. We watched it for a while: the wind pushed the ice sheet against the shore, pushing it up onto land, little pieces of ice breaking off.

Already I’ve noticed there are many fewer ducks and loons on New Bedford harbor than a month ago, for the waterfowl are beginning to move back inland. No waterfowl yet on Fresh Pond, but soon they will move off their wintering grounds along the coast and stop here on their way to their breeding grounds.