Party time on Marsh Creek

Common merganser wonders ...LBelow and in front of the porch rail, the surface of Marsh Creek is smooth like a 200-year-old farmhouse window pane, smoothly rippled as the flow wanders and eddies its way to lower elevations. Reflections of creekside oaks and sycamores decorate the translucent surface of the flow, itself browned from nearby mountains’ muddied runoff – poor man’s fertilizer, some farmers call it –in rounded jaggies across the stream. A short way up the creek, mated Red-tailed hawks and a few Bald eagles prepare for their new families.

Across the glassine stage at the foot of the hill there pass pairs of Canada Geese, a few mallards and their current loves – Canada geese mate for life, mallards for convenience – and a clan of mergansers.

The nine Common mergansers glide across the water as though by magic, like figures in a music box gliding across a mirror-glass pond, pulled by invisible magnets moving below the glass. Their feet paddling furiously beneath and nearly behind them, only occasionally visible flashes of orange, the bodies propelled by apparent sleight of faery hands.

I wonder why mergansers seem always to group in an odd number. In this case, there are nine, of which two are huge, graceful black and white bodied males with shiny iridescent-green hooded heads and pointed orange bills. Larger than a mallard duck, the other most commonly seen waterfowl near where I live, they are smaller than the Canada (not “Canadian”) goose whose company mergansers and mallards often keep.

The others, gray-clad with maroon streaming headdress, are the ladies, and male youngsters too immature to be keeping conjugal company with the pulchritude that holds the attention of the handsome lords of the community. It’s interesting that the gals and the too-young guys – mating age for both is about two years – are indistinguishable to human eyes. Clearly, the mergansers can tell.

A female belted kingfisher, visually differentiated from the male by the rust-red belt she sports across her waist, dives from a tree limb, splashes briefly in the near-shore surface, then climbs back to the tree, a minnow hanging from the tip of her bill. Had she not moved, I might not have noticed. The length of a football field away from my post, a bird the size of a kingfisher is not obvious to humans nor minnows, as long as she sits still.

Slightly downstream, a pair of Painted turtles bask in the spring sun after a winter buried alive in the mud bottom of the creek, virtually shut down while they await the constantly cycling sunlight and water temperature to signal approaching spring.

They stretch their necks as though to gain a better look at the festivities surrounding them. Turtles have a reputation for moving slowly, but if a canoe drifted too closely by, they would disappear in a heartbeat.

At the end of the porch, a Gray squirrel dashes up an ivy-covered oak trunk, the top of the latter chainsawed flat because it was a threat to its human neighbors. The man turned his head slightly and the squirrel noticed the motion and froze. After a few minutes, the creature decided it was safe to move and headed down-trunk to disappear into a knothole left by a long-ago amputated tree limb.

Like young humans arriving early to the concert, the politically incorrect ducks and geese circle each other and generally declare their undying, at least for the moment, dedication to each other in rituals they hope will result in another generation to carry on the respective bloodlines.

It’s nearly party time on the creek.

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