Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tracks on the water

Today was the kind of sunny day the winter produces: weakly yellow sunlight, streaming through haze, cold but paradoxically producing a faint warmth. I am in a grumpy mood, and ready to be anywhere else. The sun lured me outside, down to Percival landing, where I stood by the 4th avenue bridge, watching the tide retreat north.

Years ago I studied with Tom Brown, the tracker, at his farm near the Pennsylvania/New Jersey boundary line. He taught his students how to read animals tracks; this forever changed the way that I walk through nature. I bring some of those long-ago tracking skills to today's nature watch on the salt water.

Today the Deschutes estuary is calm. I start tracking on the water, looking for animal sign. I had hoped to see a harbor seal, and am rewarded with the dark glossy head of this one, sculling purposefully through the water, heading north to an unknown destination. Off in the distance are Cormorants, Grebes, Buffleheads and Goldeneyes, too far away to get a good look. But then, right below the wooden planks under my feet, a small flotilla of four female Hooded Mergansers emerge.

In this picture there are only 3, but if you look to the right of the front one, there is a swirl of water that tracks her abrupt dive and disappearance. Under their paddling webbed feet, unseen to our eyes, is a small school of tiny silver fish, probably salmon fry recently released. These mergansers are doing their own tracking, seeking out that school, and having some success in catching them.

Mergansers are fish specialists; they have flat bills with tiny serrations, which allow them to keep hold of their slippery prey. As I watch, they dive over and over again, coming up with their tiny breakfast items. A local gull lands nearby and attempts to steal some of the breakfast in an act biologists call kleptoparasitism, but the mergansers swallow quickly, eluding the gull.

As I watch, the mergansers head south, under the bridge, beyond my sight, probably continuing to follow the fish. Gusts of icy west wind push against my face and my eyes are cold and full of wind tears. The sun beats down on my back and warms me faintly through my black jeans. My bad mood is cleared; I feel a profound sense of homecoming, and also gratitude for this life and this place.


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