Some Nice Surprises

As I wrote last month, 2014 marks the first in 11 seasons that no Canada geese bred here. I am aware plenty of people hate the geese and would consider this good news, but that would be a serious error, as it indicates the serious degradation of habitat.

I had all but despaired of ducks, too, but a single mother mallard has a half dozen healthy chicks! Now the littles scramble among the other adults for a bit of breakfast bread … and that single, out-of-place, domestic duck.

Mallard mama and ducklings/

Mallard mama and ducklings

I’ve seen a Great Blue Heron several mornings of late, which is always a magnificent treat, – and a small Egret was near wood ducks at dawn Thursday last!

Screech owls have been trilling. The Hermit Thrushes who have been serenading me so long now, I’ve been taking their lovely song for granted, have diminished, and were silent this morning, yet I still saw one in the messing about in the underbrush.

Rabbits seem a staple these last months; I’ve seen as many as five of them in a morning. When they adopt the freeze mode, I am happy to pretend not to see them, but they usually bound away, – the classic white tail disappears into the undergrowth.

On-going is the need to pick up plastic and glass bottles, bags, cigarette, cigar and food packaging, worm containers, and fishing line that strangled a foot-long snapping turtle I discovered reeling in the near-invisible line attached to a branch in the water at the Armory Street bridge. I focus on the positive, but there is always the heartbreak.

 

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Some Life Fails to Return

I haven’t written for some time, because it is painful. Witnessing decline in the resurgent beauty of spring is particularly poignant. Since the ice thawed, I’ve wept to watch as a few mallard ducks and Canada geese drink water at the pond’s edge that is topped with the blue iridescent sheen of gasoline.

Mallard Duck (male)

Mallard Duck By Cameron Rognan

By this time in every other year, adult waterfowl were on the pond shepherding dotted lines of little ones. In 2012, I recorded the first six goslings on May 7. Last year (2013) there were six on May 10, and on the next day, there were two families with 11 young. On May 22,  the baby count went up to 13 as another pair of parents joined the pond community.

Ducks used to breed here aplenty, too, but their numbers plunged precipitously since 2006 and 2007, when in July and August, I took pictures of the pine-needled shore covered with mallards and American Black Ducks, which outnumbered the geese! Though I may yet spot a brood of geese or ducks to tell you about, I have no basis for optimism.

On Monday my heart went to my throat as a beautiful mallard male stepped into the pond with a mess of fishing line dragging behind him… then the end in his mouth pulled free! After three attempts, I found a suitable branch, extracted the deadly stuff and got it into a trash can. I feel joy, but it is tempered. I know tomorrow I’ll find more fishing line and plastic bags here, and I carry memories of animals I found too late to save.

The rules for Springfield parks are neither posted, nor enforced at Van Horn. So unlicensed fishing, open fires, drinking, drug taking, and worse things go on unchecked. On any day you may encounter unleashed dogs or off-road vehicles that are potential dangers to kids and seniors, as well as to wildlife.

Then, the city itself dozed, graveled, and erected white and orange markers at two manhole covers – that have always been perfectly visible to the Water / Sewer folks. They stand monuments to stupidity, insults to nature, and wasted taxpayer money.

Meanwhile, the city has not picked up bags of garbage tossed by the south gate last fall, or removed electronic components leaching toxins on the north side since last summer, or collected the tires and shopping cart that have sat in plain sight for years, – but I digress.

The point is that Springfield’s mismanagement of natural resources has exacted a cost in the environmental health and quality of life that an ordinary citizen can see. The park department’s relentless incursions with fossil-fueled, noise-making, and pollution-belching machinery have disturbed and degraded the precious pockets of green wood, ponds, and marsh. The dead, drab and dirty urban wasteland closes in.

Though I thrill each morning that I hear the songs and calls of a  thrush, catbird, or flicker. I can’t help but smile when the bullfrogs harmonize. But I am grieving for the absence of babies this spring, – and for what that signifies for our future.

American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana)

American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana)

A Magical Morning

Domestic Duck & American Black Duck

Made it through an awful winter.

As I fed the ducks, a Red-tailed Hawk flew across the pond to the top of a pine, – and a minute afterward – a Great Blue Heron appeared overhead, on its way to the marsh across the street. Later, I may have frightened a pair of wood ducks off (from their cries).

However, just beyond the ducks on the remaining ice, poised to join the rest of the garbage in Springfield’s well protected waters —

Two traffic cones and wood left on pond ice after a Fire Department exercise.

The city’s contribution to natural beauty and water protection.

Last year’s fire department, ice rescue exercise left yards of plastic, incident tape on a fallen branch, to endanger birds and other aquatic life.

Abandoned shopping cart in Van Horn Park

Long abandoned shopping cart – somehow invisible to Parks Department crew.So you see Springfield’s deep respect for the environment.

With the return of spring and promise of new life. I’ll hope again this year the city starts to manage its wonderful pockets of nature to protect the wildlife and preserve its value for the people to whom it belongs.

Duck Tale

This rainy / icy morning at dawn I made my customary bread delivery to 15 mallards and one, white, domestic duck.  I’ve been hoping for weeks that it would wing away, perhaps, south along the Connecticut River where many wild ducks spend the winter when their favorite ponds have frozen over.

The Van Horn Park pond has been freezing and thawing with the fluctuating temperatures. I’ve been worried that with the wild bred out of it, this duck  may not feel the imperative to get out Dodge before winter sets in. The mallards have been treating him (or her) like one of their own, so I keep telling myself, when the group goes, this big, snowy oddball will go with them.

White domestic duck

Domestic duck (By Keith Reede – WebsterPond.org)

A couple of weeks ago, freezing temperatures persisted over a few days, and one morning, I found ice from shore to shore, – no open water and no ducks. However, I spied something white, across the pond, under a fallen tree. It took me about 20 minutes to make the hike around.  I anticipated finding a plastic bag, a drink container, or a pail (common types of refuse I clean out of here), – but, as you likely anticipated, – the white thing was the duck. It hunkered alone, on the ice beneath the arching birch.

I clumsily picked my way through brush at the water’s edge until close enough to peg bits of bread to him. Recognizing food sliding along the ice, the duck slipped and struggled to get at it. That was painful enough to watch, but then I realized the duck needed water to swallow the stuff. I found a stout stick and punched holes through to expose liquid at a few places along the shore, however, the duck was going to have to get to the drink on its own, – the thin ice prevented me from getting nearer.

I didn’t know if I helped at all and didn’t know what else I could do. I came home feeling pretty awful about that duck’s chances. My daughter left a message with the animal control folks, thinking they might have advice. No one called back.

The next morning was warmer. I found the white duck near the bridge, with four mallard pals. As I broke up pieces of soft bread for them, I felt my hope return. This guy may emulate his friends, and live to see spring yet.

Since that day, the pond has frozen and thawed again. The number of wild ducks surged to 20 last week, and is currently holding at 15 mallards, and  – one white, domestic duck.

Witnessing wonder…and loss

Since June, I’ve been walking before sunrise in Van Horn Park. I’ve seen beauty and witnessed wonder every day, but I’ve shied away from reporting these months, because it’s painful to record that there is less life and less diversity here than 10 years ago.

The wood ducks that bred here every year until 2012, are gone. This is the first year I saw no ducklings, not even mallards (although adults are still here). There are smaller numbers of Canada Geese than in prior years, and only two pairs had young. Among 23 goslings at peak count, only eight lived long enough to grow adult feathers.

The large goose family departed August 7, leaving three individuals, a pair with a late-season chick. The trio and I fell into a daily routine. Just before dawn, they’d waddle up the pine needle hill and watch for my arrival at the roadside. I knew it was my loaf of bread they were really happy to see, but I didn’t mind.

What I did mind, was seeing them away from the pond, vulnerable to loose dogs and unkind human beings. So, I’d greet them softly, but hurried them down to the water’s edge for the morning’s bakery treat. After I’d shaken the last crumbs from the bag (also shared with the ducks), the geese would take to the water and go off to do what geese do, and I’d go off for my walk.  And so it went each morning until Sunday, August 25.

That morning, I completed my circuit through the park and homeward bound, I glanced backward as I crossed Armory Street, and the geese were back up at the roadside again – looking out the gate in my direction.

Since I had no bread left and couldn’t bear to disappoint them, I continued home, feeling uneasy, and puzzled by the change in routine.

It took me Monday… Tuesday… Wednesday… with no geese to figure out – they’d been saying good-bye.

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*Yes, there is a leash law, just one among many that is not enforced.