Moments after arriving at our local park yesterday to walk around the pond, my daughter said to me, “What is going on with the swans?” Indeed, at a distance it was hard to figure out what the two resident swans were up to. It seemed as though one might have been injured or both. They were tangled in a kind of heap. Then we burst out laughing because we realized they were actually trying to get it on! Having never seen swans do that before it hadn’t occurred to us that the strange shape we saw at a distance was their attempt at coupling. I almost felt embarrassed for them…they seemed so awkward.
Continuing our walk around the pond, my daughter then commented on how the water in the pond seemed bubbly underneath the surface. It was not quiet and still or frozen as it had been for weeks. We kept walking and soon came to one of our favorite areas…a pond within the larger pond where the ducks tend to gather. This is always an active place, and today was no exception. We have been observing a couple of male Hooded Mergansers for weeks enjoying their winter visit to our pond. But today there was a surprise. A female Hooded Merganser was suddenly visible, and she was as beautiful as her partner, but in a much more subtle way. Her feathers are not the dramatic contrast of black and white like her mate, but a subtle blend of russet and black, with several dramatic white stripes on her wings folded close to her body. With our new minibinoculars we stood there for at least ten minutes watching the couple enjoy the warmer weather and each other.
About a hundred feet further along the path my daughter suddenly stopped and exclaimed, “Mom, look over there on the bank of the pond.” Sure enough, across the pond there was a good-sized turtle, completely out of the water, sunning himself. As we gazed around, we suddenly noticed there were many more turtles sunning themselves on the small islands in the pond. They were so well camouflaged they were not immediately visible to our eyes. The bubbling pond water was no longer a mystery. The turtles had been emerging from their winter hideouts.
Moments later my daughter said to me in a low, intense voice, “Oh my God, he’s back!” while pointing to a spot in the pond just below the snowbank we were standing on. Then I saw him, too…the huge turtle that has mesmerized us for this past year since we discovered his residency in our pond last summer. This is not any ordinary turtle…he has extremely long claws, very massive legs (is that what you call them?), and a spiked tail like a dinosaur. He is kinda’ scary looking…like I imagine the Loch Ness monster would be if anyone ever actually found him. He was mostly submerged with only his head sticking out of the water, but occasionally floated close enough to the surface for his shell to partially poke out of the water to remind us how big he is. And then…as if that weren’t enough for one day’s sightings…my daughter pointed to another head swimming nearby. It was another turtle nearly as large as the first swimming about 10 feet away from him. We surmised that it is probably his mate, based on the coupling we had witnessed circling around the pond on our walk. A small Irish man passing by stopped to participate in our fascination with the turtles and told us he had learned from nearby residents that these turtles were probably 80 years old and some live to be 100!
Seeing these now familiar birds and reptiles brought almost as much joy to us and excitement as seeing an elephant in the wild. My daughter said, “Well, it’s not California with its sea lions, sea otters and brown pelicans swooping past us over the Pacific waves.” But it will have to do. Here on the East Coast we experience nature on a much smaller and user- friendly scale. But there’s definitely enough nature on LI to keep all of us attentive and engaged.
With everyone pairing off in the small animal kingdom in preparation for raising a new generation, nature is once again rewarding us for making through and long and challenging winter. In an earlier posting, one slicer who was extolling the book Wondrous Words, which was changing her own writing style, talked about paying attention to your choice of words because they make a difference. Well, paying attention to the life around you, the small details, will also make a difference if you really do it. So get off your cellphones, take a walk in nature and look around you. You might be surprised.