Sunday, October 12, 2008

Swan Song

Snowing this morning.

Autumn is starting to fade, yielding her throne to winter, a slow graceful bit at a time. The leaves are mostly down now - which has the paradoxical effect of making the days brighter, since the light is no longer muted by foliage.

It's been warm for October. Last night I was at the annual Harvest Party held at my neighbors' farm, Wildwood (where I keep my sheep). As always, there was a varied buffet (barbecued pork, smoked salmon, roasted kid, kim chee, roasted squash, carrot soup, stuffed grape leaves, baked potatoes, wine, home-brewed beer, raspberry shrub, ice cream, cobbler - it goes on). There was also, as always, an excellent bonfire, made of dead-fall from the last year, blazing cheerfully, flinging spirals of sparks skyward, crackling and rich with the scent of burning spruce. It was an overcast evening, starless, but with a molten silver lake where the moon, just off full, lurked above the clouds. Even though it was about 40 degrees, I will say that eventually the heat of the bonfire was welcome; luxurious even, as the chill of deep night came on and a light thin breeze came up, sharp-edged enough to make me huddle up to the heat radiating from the embers. But it wasn't until late that it was needed, and when I left there (at 1:30 in the morning, redolent of the incense of fire) it still wasn't really what I'd call cold. Today when I got up it was raining, and though it's chilled down enough to fall now as snow, it isn't serious, here-to-stay snow. This will be gone by tomorrow afternoon, but for now it frosts the branches of the trees and muffles sound, making the very air somehow more intimate than before; somehow personal.

The first snow of the season fell a few days ago and, as I expect this one will, melted off a day later. The lakes are still open, the water growing chill and slatey under the grey skies, but still harboring the water birds for a few more days, offering them the last of the year's bounty before they fly.

One of the pleasures of living here, in a neighborhood riddled with lakes and marshes, is the water birds. I love the sound of the cranes as they fly by in pairs, eye-level to me on my balcony, their long necks undulating with their measured, powerful wing strokes, their slender elegant legs trailing in their own slipstream as they wing over the lake, calling to each other. I love the fast, powerful flight of the ducks, short-winged and sturdy as they rocket past my windows. I love the wheeling dips and dives of the Bonaparte's gulls and the terns. This year for the first time I had a kingfisher on my lake, a vivid, electric midnight blue as it perched, scanning for fish; then making hard, slapping dives into the water. That was exciting. But maybe best of all are the swans.

Every year, twice a year, the swans visit my lake during their migrations, north in the spring and then south again in the fall. I think it's the same pair (and their descendants), over and over, though of course I can't be sure. Some years they come down from the north with three or four or five cygnets; other years they have one or two or none. They circulate over several of the lakes around here, searching out the last of the food, visiting the houses where they know they are likely to find snacks in the offing.

There were five swans this year, some obviously still in the fading ash-grey plumage of youth. I didn't get a good opportunity to photograph them this year - I always saw them when I was on my way somewhere and didn't have 20 minutes to spare - but Dave had a better shot. He heard the swans calling to each other on the lake, dropped what he was doing and grabbed his camera and the end of a loaf of bread, and scooted on out to the shore.

Amongst other things, Dave is an excellent mimic, and he can call the swans in by honking to them in an echo of their own voices. The swans always come when he calls to them.

As beautiful and graceful as they are, swans are powerful birds, and pretty bold with it. They know their strength, and are not especially reticent around people. This is partly habituation - they know that, on the residential lakes, no one will try to catch and eat them, and some people will give them food - but it's partly that they aren't especially afraid of the dogs and people on the shore because they know that they can take most dogs, and can escape most people. They have a long migration ahead of them, and if someone offers them a few extra calories against the effort ahead, they aren't especially averse to venturing on-shore for them.

Pepper, of course, cannot resist the swans. She is too well-bred as a stock dog to chase or harass them, but she can't resist going down and staring at them, creeping along dock or shore to flank them, laying down to fix them in the force of her Eye. Unlike the JRT belonging to one of Dave's neighbors - who, like most of his kind, is absolutely convinced that he's tough enough to take on a rhinoceros, let alone a few birds - Pepper never dives in and swims out, trying to take on the swans in their own milieu (a fairly suicidal move, as the JRT discovered when they started pecking him in the head and pushing him under water. Naturally, this didn't really deter him much, but the combined efforts of his owners yelling for him to come back, plus the swans forcefully expressing their displeasure at his invasion, eventually got him back on shore.) Pepper will not go after them.... but she can't help watching them, intent, ready for action, honed to a sharp point of focus.

The swans have gone on now, to their southern environs. They'll be back in the spring, but for the moment they have departed on the trailing hem of autumn, leaving behind the rising breast of winter... and the echo of their song.


Mutt Gal said...

Beautifully written! I was right there with you.

My dad has a couple JRTs, so I had a great picture in my head of the little twerp going after those huge birds! The first time my Catahoula/Lab mix saw a swan, she barked and growled at it, terrified, then hid behind my legs.

Here in WA, I'm dreading the end of autumn- it's my favorite season. I'm looking forward to reading your blog over the long, rainy winter!

MaskedMan said...

If medicine weren't your first calling, then poetry would be. Oh, it's prose, to be sure, but poetic all the same.

Thank you.

Black Jack's Carol said...

I loved all of this post, but your description of water birds left me with one of those aha moments. You said what I have felt but couldn't express, as I observed the herons this past summer. The words: their slender elegant legs trailing in their own slipstream" will stay with me a long time. Thank you!

AKDD said...

Thanks, gang! ::blushes::

MG, I think Dave actually has pictures of the JRT about to get his little noggin pecked in. I'll see if he can send them to me so I can post them. Crazy little brave dog!

MM... well, thanks. That's a rather lovely thing to say. :)

BJC - I'm glad that conveyed the look of those long-legged shore birds. It IS hard to describe it, exactly; there's something slightly prehistoric about them and the pelicans, to me. I'm glad it struck a chord, because it means I got across at least some part of the essence of them (to the extent that one can, that is, without actually seeing them in flight). :)

Mutt Gal said...

VOTE- (Ha! I LOVE that your acronym is VOTE!): Speaking of prehistoric birds, there is a photographer whose website is In the upper right-hand corner, click on "galapagos." OMG his photos are amazing. I just thought you might enjoy it. I spend a lot of time cruising the net for inspiration for pet photography, and his images are beautiful. Just thought I'd let you know. : )

AKDD said...

Snerk! I didn't notice the acronym, myself. Funny.

Thanks for the tip! I'll check it out.