NECESSARY DISTRACTION

 

 

One recent morning I lie awake at 4:00 a.m.   Involuntarily, and uncontrollably, my brain flits through dismal thoughts:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health; the Con-Man in DC; carbon emissions growth; stock market collapse; and, the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback situation.

I struggle until 7:00 when I arise, open the shades, look out the window and notice something new.  The pond across the street, normally placid and uninhabited except by slow-moving turtles appears to have a surface disturbance. As I focus, whatever moved disappears below the surface so quickly I wonder if I’ve imagined it.  Several seconds later, a bird reappears.  It looks like a miniature duck, but what kind?

I reach below my desk for the “Field Guide to Wild Birds.”  I scroll through twenty-two pages of common ducks and also a few rarer ducks I’ve seen, including, hooded mergansers that visited last summer and Muscovy ducks, the huge green/black fowl I’ve seen at the zoo.

Aha, our visitor is unmistakably a female “bufflehead.”  She is described, as follows: “Among the smallest of ducks, grey-brown with an obvious oval of white on her cheek.”   As predicted in the guide, she dives incessantly for insect larvae.  She remains below the surface for fifteen-twenty seconds at a time.  She is tiny, much smaller than the standard mallards one generally sees.

I haven’t spent too much time pondering ducks in my life, but if there is one thing I know about ducks, it’s that they mate for life.  Is our duck a widow?  A divorcee? Who’s heard of a pond with one duck?

 

*****

 

 

I grew up across from a pond.  It served as a water feature on the Bala Golf Course, an Irish Catholic institution that zealously excluded everyone else.  The several times I ventured onto golf course property during hours of play, a “ranger” appeared magically as if an alarm had been tripped.  He’d drive a golf cart down a hill from the clubhouse shouting: “No trespassing!  Private property!  No trespassing!”  Needless to say, my six-year-old self ran home immediately.

In Philadelphia in the early 1960’s it was understood there were Protestant (WASP) clubs, Jewish clubs and Catholic clubs.  If one wanted to golf ecumenically, I suppose, one went to a public course.  In a way, my exclusion from Bala probably saved me from developing a golf habit, along with the expense, time and frustration that entails.  Thank you, discrimination.

Meanwhile, back to the pond…. In winter, when no one golfed, the overwhelmingly Jewish population of our neighborhood considered the pond the local skating rink.  As soon as sub-freezing temperatures arrived, I cheered for the developing ice like a sports team.  Intellectually, I’d learned from my older brothers, it required at least four complete days of below freezing temperatures to create ice thick enough for skating.  Alternatively, it required 7-8 nights of nighttime freeze if daytime temperatures climbed above thirty-two.  Still, from the first transparent appearance of ice on the surface, I nagged my mother every day asking if the ice were ready.

The pond also hosted ducks.  I recall they were exclusively mallards, with the green-headed males and greyish females.  We’d save stale bread to feed the ducks in the corner of the pond where a waterfall prevented freezing.  The ducks ate ravenously, and we felt virtuous.  Recently, I’ve read it’s not healthy for them to eat bread, and local ducks I’ve encountered don’t seem interested.  Could they have gone on a species-wide health kick in the intervening fifty years?

 

*****

 

A week later, the mystery of the single bufflehead continues until one morning, a male appears.  He’s much larger, with brilliant white highlights between otherwise brown and gray feathers.  It’s exciting!  Our girl has found (or been found by) a mate.  They spend all day diving together.  My faith in duck companionship is restored.  By spring, I expect ducklings to brighten the pond.

The next morning, he’s gone. “What happened to our boy?” I wonder.  Am I over anthropomorphizing?  After a couple of days, the tiny female departs, too.  Our pond is again uninhabited except for turtles – no harm, but no fowl.  I realize I miss the daily speculation about her situation.

 

*****

 

Little came of my early skating career. There were few kids my age and teenagers didn’t want a six-year-old in their hockey games.  And, though I owned a stick and a puck, I wasn’t equipped to do more than skate in circles.  When the NHL Flyers came to Philadelphia in 1967 I realized for the first time there existed such a thing as specialized ice hockey skates – quite different from my figure skates.  Though I passionately embraced a rooting interest in the Flyers, I immediately sensed the rough and tumble of hockey were best observed from a distance – baseball and tennis embodied my interests better – no body checks or elbows.

And although the excitement of skating on the pond loomed large in my youthful mind, even before global warming took hold, skating was only possible for a few days each winter. Truthfully, I was a so-so skater with a tendency to quit at the first onset of frozen toes and fingers. Skating, for me, became just a prerequisite for the hot cocoa waiting back at the house.

 

*****

 

It’s been several weeks since the little bufflehead and her short-term suitor disappeared.  The pond remains placid except for an occasional visit by a flock of Canadian geese.  They are charming enough as long as they stay in the water.  But their invasions of the surrounding grass leave a trail of, shall we say, debris.  The pond seemed so alive with possibility when the bufflehead was around.  Now, it’s still pretty, but it looks empty.  Is there anything in the news I’d want to think about today?  Hmmmm.  How does one attract ducks to a pond?  Google, here I come….

 

 

 

 

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