Nature’s Triumph and Tragedy on Big Blue Lake: April 21, 2017

We had watched the Canada Goose pair along our near-east shore for more than a month. First, they began frequenting the stretch of shoreline, seeming to stake claim. One of the two aggressively chased away intruders. Next, they scratched and prepared a nest 2-3 feet from water’s edge. April 7, we saw the female at dawn sitting on the nest. The male sat remote from the nest, 150 feet south.

Pity the hapless male (we think he showed aggression only to other males) who wandered within the zone he intended to protect. He would honk angrily (it seemed angry to us – his actions demonstrated fierceness), launch horizontally and on occasion leap upon the interloper. He would, when possible, grasp the offending bird’s tail with his beak, and attempt pulling that bird under water. In all cases that we witnessed, the other bird’s primary action was flight (as in flight or fight). Not once did we see the trespassing culprit stand up to the fury. Even when the male dunked the other, that bird managed to emerge and escape, apparently unscathed.

When the angry bird pursued in the water, he displayed his pique with hoarse honking and head extended, neck parallel to and just inches above the water, appearing snake-like. Others quickly surmised that this guy was serious.

Something Amiss

We knew immediately at first light two weeks after the female began nest-sitting, that something was not right. The pair sat together where the male had steadfastly stood guard. I observed to Judy, “Something is wrong. They look sad.” As we gained light, I looked at the nest through binoculars. Sure enough, egg shells and feathers marked the nest vicinity. The two stayed close through the next couple of days, she remained stationary that entire first day. The second day, she walked with a pronounced limp, but seemed otherwise okay. She had obviously suffered some injury in defending the clutch.

What predator? The overnight possibilities include coyote, skunk, raccoon, and snapping turtle. The coyotes have not been emboldened enough to venture into the open parts of our neighborhood, preferring to stick to adjoining woods and fields. Nor have I seen raccoons, yet I imagine they are nearby. I have detected skunk scent, but have not seen one near our lake. However, we’ve frequently seen two big snappers on our end of the lake; fifteen inches in diameter or more with large heads. Big enough to handle a goose. Stealthy enough to ease from the water and do his work before the goose could alarm the gander. I’m sticking with the turtle attribution.

April 21, 2017 – both a sad day for our goose neighbors, and a day of celebration for a mallard pair. We had not spotted their nest nor witnessed any courtship or family planning and preparation. Within an hour of spotting our forlorn goose pair, we saw a female mallard emerging from water grasses along the west shore, with a string of tiny ducklings trailing… and papa following behind. Even with the binoculars I could not make a head count, guessing at least ten. Within a couple of days, our next-door neighbors made a confirmed count of 13. As the mallard family approached the heart-sick goose couple, we ached for their loss. What did they feel? We can only speculate. They certainly projected a sense of loss.

As I write this essay, the ducklings are in their sixth week, 70 percent of mama’s size. The count has been steady at ten for the past month. Three lost to who knows what end – predation, illness, poor swimming? They are more than halfway to fledging. They run remarkably fast when, while they forage under our feeders, one of us emerges and mama urges a dash to the water. We’ve seen her signal alarm as they swim in tight formation. Their response is immediate, furiously paddling and flapping their still miniature wings. Again, surprisingly rapid.

Now back to the goose pair. The female stopped limping within a week. Even during her period of hobbling, she could fly.  To our dismay, the male did not cease his aggressive territoriality and now phantom-nest protection. The couple stays in the vicinity of his nesting guard post. Any male who happens near bears the brunt of the gosling-denied gander’s residual fury. He hasn’t missed a beat, still maniacally attacking interlopers – always just one of a pair – we suppose the male. How long will he persist in guarding and protecting? He seems somehow comfortable as the Big Blue Lake Bully.

Another goose pair, who nested on the southwest shore, fared better. Mom and her five goslings presented themselves at our feeders May 4, two weeks after the fateful night. Those five are now quite large, visiting occasionally. Other nesting birds grace our meager one-third acre. Two shrub willows shore-side on our lot sport new red wing blackbird nests. A kill deer couple is incubating four eggs just fifteen feet from our patio, perched on a mounded bed where we planted a fringed-leaf Japanese maple mid-spring. They chastise us every time we venture their way. They treat us to frequent broken-wing diversionary displays!

Lakeside life for us is quite rewarding, offering surprises day after day. Most are pleasant, despite the occasional setback, including the goose egg predation. Yet Nature is like that, as is life and vocation generally. No individual or enterprise operates with only tail winds and smooth sailing. Breezes shift, gales rise, and ill winds blow. We should take heed that Nature prepares for contingencies. There is a reason that just one killdeer pair tends four eggs, and will likely follow with another brood this summer. That two geese are raising five goslings and a mallard couple starting with thirteen ducklings, now tends ten adolescents (they remind me of awkward teenagers). Nature instructs us to consider risks, understand the potential consequences, and prepare for head winds and undercurrents.

Also, and this point is paramount, Nature affords far more than lessons and truths. Nature INSPIRES, via both triumph and tragedy – if only we remain alert to what Nature reveals. I eagerly anticipate a gift of revelation, beauty, awe, magic, and wonder every time we walk out the door into our very suburban and undeniably domesticated yard sitting above Big Blue Lake. Life’s journey has immersed me in all levels of wildness, from Denali National Park to the Sipsey Wilderness on Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest. Two other of my favorites places that generate absolute Natural exhilaration are the Tetons and West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness. All four places reside within memory’s reach, available upon command. Big Blue Lake lies within literal reach. It, too, is rich with Nature.

I urge my clients and readers to develop memories, but to not reside entirely in those recalled mental images and stored sensations. Find sources of Nature’s inspiration within physical and temporal reach. Touch the world around you… nearby; find comfort and solace at-hand. Commit to fulfilling your obligation to steward this One Earth upon which you and humanity are totally dependent.

I’ve quoted Louis Bromfield (from his book, Pleasant Valley) repeatedly in my writing and speaking: “The land came to us out of eternity and when the youngest of us associated with it dies, it will still be here. The best we can hope to do is to leave the mark of our fleeting existence upon it, to die knowing that we have changed a small corner of this earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.”

Change your life, your enterprise, and some small corner of this Earth for the better… by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.

Featured Image: Our two grieving parents.