Monday, April 27, 2015

Old Coots, Young Shoots

There's so much going on at this time of the year that it's hard to decide sometimes whether to shout or merely squeal with delight. The temperature's rising, leaves are returning to the trees. The ducks have been passing through for a month now, the grass is greening up, and it won't be long before the warblers arrive in good numbers. The AWP convention was a unique pleasure, and the international film festival has been in full swing for a fortnight. I've seen movies from the Czech Republic, China, Estonia, Cuba, The United Arab Emirates, Italy, France, Poland, Argentina, and the United States, with three or four more lined up for early next week.

Last week we began to run out of steam just a little. On Tuesday I was torn between attending a book release party for a new Nodin Press anthology at the University Club and listening to Laurie Herzel interview one of my favorite novelists, Per Pettersen, at Macalester College; in the end we spent a quiet evening at home, reading. 

On Thursday the choice was between a sneak preview performance of Far from the Madding Crowd and a reading/seminar on the current state of Swedish poetry at the Swedish Institute. We opted for Happy Hour at the Lowry Restaurant followed by a leisurely drive around the Minneapolis chain of lakes. The evening was simply too grand to ignore.

That was the first night when the air was warm, the leaves were a discernible yellow-green in the waning sunlight, and it seemed that everyone was out. Even the coots.

I normally don't pay much attention to coots. Perhaps I should. They're in the same clade—the Gruiformes—as the sandhill crane. But unlike the majestic cranes, the coot is a pudgy, ash-colored bird with a white beak and a slightly clown-like mien. They travel in large groups, often nervously zigging and zagging across the surface of the water, dependent on a collective will that seems unsure of itself. It's always a treat, when surveying a loose raft of coots, to spot a pied-bill grebe or a horned grebe in the crowd.

But that evening the coots themselves were lovely, swimming in a confident, purposeful pack—almost a V—along the left side of Lake Calhoun, no more than twenty feet off shore. Out beyond them, six or eight red-breasted mergansers were engaged in leisurely courtship displays. (I say "leisurely," but who really knows how intense duck-emotions are?)

The next morning we returned with binoculars. The weather was gray and the lake was choppy, but a few more birds had arrived. There may have been 300 coots all told on Calhoun and Harriet, and we also saw fifteen or twenty eared grebes, a few loons, and a group of shovelers farther out on the lake.

By Sunday morning the weather had cleared, and the leaves on the trees and shrubs were at the point where they were substantial yet still young enough to glow with incoming sunlight rather than merely blocking it. It's an exciting moment—often a fleeting one. 

The four crab apple trees just south of Highway 55 on Theodore Wirth Parkway were full of white blossoms. (I'd like to plant one of those in my yard.)

The ephemerals at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden were just getting started. Wild ginger, bloodroot, trout lilies, purple trillium. It was a nice stroll, though the only new bird we saw was a hermit thrush.

Ten minutes south of the garden, we were once again circling the lakes. The ducks were gone. Heading for Manitoba, no doubt, on this clear, bright morning. 

There may have been thirty coots near the south shore of Lake Calhoun. We watched half of them come ashore in a large group, re-oil their feathers (I guess?) and hop back into the lake to rejoin their cousins.    



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