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NATURE HAPPENINGS - March 2002

The River of Life
by Damian Fagan

Mr. Fagan I had the best seat in the house. Perched atop a hundred-foot bluff along the banks of the Colorado River, I had a front row seat to The River of Life. From my eyrie, I would watch the annual rituals of Spring unfold before me. Stage left was filled with the parental care of two bald eagles, our nation’s symbol, as they alternated incubating their precious eggs. The rim of the nest made of cottonwood twigs blocked my view, but every so often I would watch as the incubating bird would roll an egg with its beak to insure that all sides were adequately warmed. The bird would stretch, cast a glance upstream to watch as a pair of mallards noisily lifted off of the water, then settle back down for his or her turn on the egg.

Center stage was filled by a river island, severed from the banks by several braids of the river. Clothed in cottonwoods, the island offered safe havens to a number of different species. Great blue herons maintained a rookery, an apartment complex of nests, in one massive cottonwood. Individual herons would fly low and slow, circling over the complex and uttering guttural calls to their mates below. With amazing grace these long-legged fishermen would descend into the crowd of limbs, then land with a great fanfare. They would arch their heads skyward, while their mate would dip their long necks downward. I was a witness to their courtship, a cupid without any arrows, a spectator to love.

Occasionally, one of the eagles would pass close by over the herons, who, in turn, would squabble their protests. For the most part they left each other alone, this duet of fisherfolk living along the river.
Below the cottonwood trees the wild turkeys roamed. The toms would puff themselves up and strut before the flocks of hens, whose disinterest seemed to indicate who was the mightier of the sexes. At times I could count more than 200 individuals, scattered into several flocks. The turkeys didn’t mind the herons; I even caught them sleeping in the bald eagle’s nest tree one starlight evening.

Foraging along the braids of the river were the migrant waterfowl. Mallards and green-winged teals would forage among the shallow riffles, while the goldeneyes and mergansers, the males in their snowy breeding plumage, would float the main current diving for fish. Sometimes the flocks of geese that foraged in the fields with the wild turkeys would get startled, spooked by a large shadow or wary of a patrolling coyote. The flocks would suddenly lift off in a great commotion of beating wings and noisy calls, their honking reminding me of a Manhattan traffic jam.

The geese would scare the ducks into flight, some lifting off like helicopters while others, like the mergansers, had to take a run across the water to get airborne. The mix of geese and ducks would then startle the herons, whose protest calls became louder as they launched from their cottonwood springboards. While this cacophony of sound would reverberate across the river, the eagles would sit motionlessly in their nest or atop their dead-tree perches. They would cast a glance at the spectacle, but not join in the mayhem themselves.

Sometimes the ducks would fly right by my perch, nervously looking my way. Other times they would circle about the islands and bends in the river, constantly calling, ever vigil. Soon peace and quiet would return; all would settle down to loaf or feed or forage or court. What an endless cycle I would think, ever amazed at the tenacity for survival exhibited by these winged creatures along this River of Life.

 

 

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