Mammals in Winter

Otter

Although I am a birder at heart, I can’t help but notice some of the marvelous mammals that inhabit Montlake Fill as well. A River Otter family regularly swims over from Foster Island to frolic among the cattails on our side of the bay and tease the ducks, like pesky toddlers in the back seat: “He’s on my side.” “She’s making faces at me.” “Mooommmm!”

The beavers have been hard at work, as if to fulfill their stereotypical image. They cut down all the birches at East Point and have begun work on a mammoth cottonwood on Boy Scout Pond. What they will do with it when it falls is beyond me.

Beaver

There are seven beaver lodges encircling Union Bay, including one in Yesler Swamp. You can see these large members of the rodent family swimming around the bay if you get out here at dawn or dusk. I once sat my campstool near a mud-slick trail leading out of the water and watched a large North American Beaver swimming toward East Point. He stopped short when he saw me and slapped his tail on the water, which I thought was a warning to other beavers to watch out for the dangerous human in the floppy hat. But instead of diving and escaping, he began to slap harder and harder. At last he was slapping so hard, half his body was coming out of the water with each slap, and I could see his little back feet wiggle. It finally dawned on me that he was trying to tell me to go away so he could climb out and eat the succulent bark nearby. I slunk off. Apparently I am deficient in beaver-speak.

FieldMouse

Among my favorite rodents, surprisingly, are the field mice who come out sometimes to feed in the fields. I say “surprisingly” because if I see one in my house, I eek with the best and make haste to stand on a chair. Mickey Mouse was never one of my idols. But wild mice in their natural habitat are cute. More or less. Last time we had a little snow, I found one peeping out at me from a little tunnel it had dug beside the trail. Its nose quivered in the cold as it checked me out, so I wrinkled my nose too and smiled, glad of my muffler and the warm heater I knew was waiting for me back home.

Here is a poem for you this winter’s day:

Light glazed the snowfield,
no track to mar the gloss,
’til you poked out,
little mouse of wild ways,
and left a wispy trail.

 

Mallards in Winter

Male puddle ducks such as Mallards face a troubling dilemma every year: On the one hand, they’d like to stay in their nondescript eclipse plumage for as long as possible so they can hide from predators. Unfortunately, they would also like to find a mate before their rivals can snaffle all the most attractive females. The males who get into their spiffy breeding plumage early have the best chance to catch both the feminine and the eagle’s eye. Oy.MallardPortrait

Our males at Montlake Fill are among nature’s more intrepid gallants and begin to molt into breeding plumage as early as October. Now that January is here, they are all lookin’ good. Many have already found their significant other and appear almost insufferably smug—until an eagle shows up and they beat a hasty retreat into the cattails. The remaining bachelors parade themselves in front of the drab females in hopes of getting lucky. It’s a drama you can watch anytime you stroll down to the water’s edge and search for emerald heads set against the backdrop of our silvery lake.

Here’s a poem for you today:

There is magic here in winter.
Leaden skies touch the lake at dawn
and turn the still waters into gleaming silver
set with emerald mallards.

 

Dreams

Most of the puddle duck males have finished breeding by now and are busy working on another big task: getting rid of their conspicuously bright plumage. Earlier in the year, they needed their gaudiest getups in order to attract a female, but now that mating season is over, the males would like to blend into the background a lot more and lower their risk of being eaten by predators. So they are molting as fast as they can into a camouflage plumage called “eclipse.” Not everybody molts on the same schedule, though. You can still catch a few males looking spiffy. In particular, one quite lovely Cinnamon Teal male has been hanging out on Southwest Pond lately. He likes to nap on a tussock of grass and mud on the southwest edge of the pond.

Here is a poem for you today:CinTeal

I dream.
I dream of harmony between me and mine.
The song sublime.
And all of humanity is mine.
And all of nature too.

 

Douglas Road Work

The Washington Department of Transportation has committed to mitigate the damage that will occur when the new 520 bridge is built in the Foster Island area. Part of the mitigation will be to convert the Dime Lot at Montlake Fill (also known as E-5) into a wetland. This will add something like 20 acres of new wetland to the Fill, a substantial increase to the 75-acre site. Wowza. Back in April, the UW closed off Douglas Road, the gravel road leading into the Dime Lot. Work is scheduled to begin in July. In the meantime, the birds have already taken back Douglas Road and the parking lot. If you are quiet and slow, you can enter this brave new world and share it with the wild birds who live here, most notably, a family of Killdeers: mom and dad and chicks who look like puffballs on stilts. Here is a poem for you today:

They closed the road in April
KilldrChick_Parrottto build a wetland someday,
but a Killdeer came
to scrape her nest,
lay four eggs.
Now babies own that road.

Dawn Chorus

In spring and summer, many of our songbirdsstart singing well before dawn, filling the darkness with cascades of liquid notes. Birders call this the dawn chorus. Two species who start especially early and sing a long time are American Robin and Bewick’s Wren. Both species can be heard at Montlake Fill right now, if you get up early enough to hear them! Actually, they both sing well into midmorning as well, so if you’re not a morning person, go ahead and sleep in a bit, drink your coffee, and get fully awake before you set out. But I encourage you to make the effort to listen to the dawn chorus as well. It is ethereally lovely. Here is a poem for you today:

I walked the trail this morning
before the robin sang,AmericanRobin
and the wren.
Before the world woke.
Wild nature and I, alone.
At peace.

 

On the Way North

American Pipits are moving through the Fill now, on their way to breed in the Far North. Years ago, I was in Alaska to see them on their breeding grounds: talus slopes near Mount Denali, where they could creep into little crevices away from predators to lay their eggs. The slopes were alive with pipits, reminding me of moms and dads at University Village crowded around the little play area, watching kids, talking to each other about events of the day, comparing notes on childcare. Every time I see pipits at the Fill now, I can imagine them arriving at their summer place, where the sun never sets and life is good.

Here is a poem for you today:

Pipits touched down briefly,
ate a seed or two,
then took flight
into the empty blue sky,
one haunting pipeet
fading behind in the wind. AmericanPipit

Cinnamon Teal

Our Cinnamon Teals are starting to come back to breed here, having spent the winter in sunny Mexico. They seem to bring the sunlight with them when they come. I suppose it’s their sunrise colors that seem to make them glow from within. Look for them on all the ponds of the Fill – we had twelve pairs nesting last year and perhaps we’ll get even more this season.

CinnamonTeal

Here is a twitter poem for you:

In spring a Cinnamon Teal floats by,
feathers glowing like embers
about to burst into flame,
like the fiery dawn of life
renewed,
eternal.

Spring Morning

Piedbilled_GrebeRunning

The Pied-billed Grebes of the ponds, lagoons, and lake around Montlake Fill are gearing up for another year of making more grebes. You can hear their eerie songs in the morning, and if you are really lucky, you might see one trying to impress its mate as it runs across the water before face-planting and disappearing beneath the waves. It is one of the many wonders of nature going on right here in our own backyard.

Here is a new twitter poem for you today:

In the silver morning light
a Pied-billed Grebe dances
across the lagoon toward his mate,
etching an ephemeral trail in the molten water.

Introducing “Twitter” Poems

With this new post (in far too long, my apologies), I want to introduce a brand-new art form, one that I am calling “Twitter Poems,” for lack of a better name. Twitter, as you all probably know, is the online micro-blogging app invented in 2006 that allows users to post very short messages. Each message can be only 140 characters long, including word spaces. My kids have been urging me for years to join social media networks and enter the 21st century. They decided that Twitter would be a good way to let me take baby steps into this brave new world. “Stop being a dinosaur,” was their succinct, almost tweet-like way of putting it. So I gave in and joined Twitter.

Much to my dismay, when I began to read other people’s posts, I found most of them loaded with abbreviations, symbols, and references to who knows what. It was like trying to decode some secret language that I wasn’t sure even was a language. As I am already trying to learn one new language (Portuguese), which at my age is not easy to do, I decided that anything I posted would have to be written in plain English.

So I began. I soon discovered that writing anything sensible, lyrical, and meaningful in only 140 characters is quite a trick. Wonderful discipline for a writer, though. The spareness of my tweets began to resemble poetry, which I thought I might share with you. Below is my first blog-posted Twitter poem, in honor of one of my favorite Montlake Fill birds, the Red-winged Blackbird:

RedWingedBlackbird_Cranky

In spring the Red-winged Blackbird sings
his cranky song in the marsh,
rough disharmony among the reeds.
I guess even grumps can be in love.