Trrrup-de-trreeo! Trrrup-de-trreeo! A bird call sounding strangely like the sound of a screen door opening and closing cuts through the heat of the day. What the heck is the source of this racket? Paying attention to these bird calls, as a bird it must be, opens up our senses to a three-dimensional soundscape. Suddenly, a bird lands near the lake shore to graze on a yet unknown food source, with a head as yellow as a field of rapeseed. It cocks its head back and lets loose a cacophonous cry. The ID is solid: it’s a Yellow-headed blackbird, and—the game is afoot.
Sitting here at the edge of a manmade lake in the middle of the Nevada desert is incongruous, but allowing us to let go into the allure of a fully functioning oasis eases our minds. The thrumming of wings suddenly approaches the back of my head, and I turn to come face-to-face with an Anna’s hummingbird, hovering inquisitively before zipping off to partake of our hanging sugary nectar feeder. The males of this species, one of the largest in America, often emit soft chirps as they graze from flower to flower. They are the only hummingbird species to perform this vocalization, but the plethora of other, louder bird sounds drowns out the possibility of hearing that quiet chirrup. Hummers can be skittish but they are also infinitely curious and investigative of possible food sources. Trolling a hardware store, I discovered a flower ring which could be filled with nectar, and it didn’t take long for a hummer’s investigation to migrate from a flying test of potential sweetness, to the bird’s actually settling on my finger, heartily supping from this energy source. What a strange feeling this nearly weightless creature imparted! Inches from my face, it lifted off, hovering momentarily before my eyes as if to express thanks, and zoomed off like a UFO around Air Force jets. Ah, anthropomorphism probes deep—or can it be true?
Gaggles of geese patrol in groups all along the shoreline and grassy rim of our lake. As we slowly acculturate ourselves to this environment during thirty-minute walks around its perimeter, we come across a goose nestled down, almost hidden between shore rocks and a shoreline reed bed. Out of nowhere, there is a loud hiss and her mate rushes up to us, wings outstretched to challenge our intrusion, informing us that this is a nesting site. Reminder: don’t mess with geese!
Shoulder season quickly passes here, and temperatures morph from the 60s and 70s to the 90s and 100s, and soon geese couples begin a stately parade along the walkways into the water with their goslings in groups of three, four, or five trundling around them. It’s endlessly interesting to watch geese in “walkabout,” with the female in the lead and the male taking up the rear, as inevitably one gosling will fall behind and need a nudge in its downy rear to scuttle as fast as its little legs can go to join the rest.
A few days pass and we are impressed at how fast the goslings grow. Geese pair up for a life of close to 25 years, and are fiercely loyal to each other, often falling out of flying rank, called a “skein,” to support weak or injured skein members. In the evenings, geese settle down in groups in protected areas around the shoreline. Often we see what appears to be family members assisting in the raising of the goslings, waddling along the shore to join the human parade of dog walkers, bicyclists, fishers, and strollers with strollers. There exists parity between all creatures here in our lake oasis but if a human—for it would be a human that steps out of line—crosses the barrier of protection, the geese assume a defensive or even offensive posture, depending upon the severity of the infraction. Reminder: don’t mess with geese.
Ducks, who rule the proverbial roost here, are the panhandling opportunists of this oasis, and move about freely throughout the ecosystem, often harassing both the human inhabitants and each other. I will not discuss the messes all these creatures leave behind themselves, except to say that there exists a daily poop sweeper whose job it is to maintain the walkways with shovel and brush. The birds don’t seem to notice. Well, okay, I’ve already discussed it: When walking at night, one takes one’s shoes and upright status into account as the previously mentioned waste matter mixing with grass irrigation spray water creates a slick, hazardous environment.
Back to our duck “tails”. . . we notice each grouping of ducks is mostly comprised of one female (hen) and two to three males (drakes). These guys are not monogamous like geese. The drakes hang around until the eggs hatch, then split to entertain other amorous adventures. One day, as we sat out in our chairs basking in the breeze of the afternoon, a group of ducks called what-you-will—a waddling, a raft, a skein, a flock, a bunch, a plump, or archaically, a badling—came and settled down a yard away from us. Soon, a lone drake waddled up from afar and began to nudge closer to the hen. She immediately began to quack loudly and her harem of drakes rose up to drive the intruder away. This occurred several more times, to our growing entertainment. The following day, a short distance away, we saw what we think was that same drake make a beeline across the lake, climb ashore, run over to our lone hen and her entourage, and attempt to mount her. She began a bleating, continuous quacking as “her” two drakes set upon the interloper with vigor and malice. We stared in amazement as the fighting continued and the trespasser managed to climb up on the hen’s back while being simultaneously bitten all about his body by her bodyguards.
We momentarily contemplated stepping into the fray but recognized that Nature must have its way. Soon the skirmish subsided, the insistent drake disappeared, and they all pulled out cigarettes and took a nap. We never saw that insistent drake again.
I’m interested in what kind words can be said about mallards, since they are such assertive, self-assured creatures. All research material seems to agree that mallards make great pets, but—not house pets, for reasons you can already imagine.
Early on in our stay here, we heard a growing quacking from several yards away, approaching our Airstream. Soon, a badling (proper retro name in this case) of ducks appeared at our door. How cute! Against all common sense and warnings from park signs that read, “Don’t feed the wildlife,” I relived my earliest memories of going to Zoo Rookery in Chicago with a bag of bread scraps, and instead walked out the door and began hand-feeding those quacking, friendly ducks, one by one, feeling their persistent beaks scraping and biting my fingers. Cute!
Thus began the bi-daily demanding intrusion into our peaceful solace and the eventual cold turkey—turkey?!—weaning of those ducks from our lives. Incidentally, ducks are pretty savvy creatures. They can recognize you from a distance and as they often travel far and wide to prey on other unsuspecting suckers here, will postpone their begging to travel at full speed toward your attempts to escape. We can reliably state that, while walking along the lake shore, quacks of recognition have been heard from afar, leading to a quickening of our own footsteps.
Birds of a feather
There are other birds here as well. Grebes, coots, herons, and other to-be-discovered feathered mysteries like cormorants . . . What?! In the desert? This is a first for us. We fully expect to see these birds offshore, and I’ve seen them often, when I was diving in thirty feet of water, jetting past me for some hapless prey. But in a desert environment? Yes. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes, but after consultation with our bird book, another exploratory walk around the lake confirmed the identification. For a cormorant, this environment is like shooting balloons with a shotgun.
Our campground lake is stocked with hundreds of carp, largemouth bass, crappie, and bluegill. Wherever there are fish, there are not only cormorants, but also fisher people, and this lake is stocked with them too, scattered at all times of the day wherever their mystical internal fishing compass informs them to position themselves. Signs say this lake is catch-and-release, but close observation reveals that this is not always the case. We watched a fisherman near our observation chairs pull a whopper in, squat down, and pretend to throw it back into the lake but, through conspicuous sleight of hand, shovel it with some labor into a clear plastic bag. He cast a furtive glance back our way and we didn’t give him any grace, eyes penetrating his backside as he found a more comfortable site. Daily fisher-watching is revealing to us that everyone we see is pulling in a catch of about a foot in length. The water in our oasis is quite clear to most of the bottom, and we can see schools of fish everywhere, and turtles popping their heads above water for a quick breath before diving down to tug on fisher people’s lures, promulgating false hopes. Here there be drama! To a discriminating eye though, dark shadows lurk in the deep. Slow moving, and crafty, three-foot-long bigmouth bass slowly undulate along the bottom, avoiding every fishing lure we’ve witnessed. These crafty buggers are the dream of the weekend warriors, but seeing their fishing rigs, none of them have the line weight for such a catch. So it appears a truce exists between the L.M.B. and the fisher.
There is rarely silence here in the oasis. Mourning doves start in at the earliest crack of dawn and mewl and coo to attend, distract, and penetrate the mind, preventing any attempt at blocking out their never-ending calls. Pigeons call Who?, while mourning doves Coo, confusing the casual observer’s identification. In the night, we hear the strange haunting call of the peacock. This call comes from off in the desert; we can only presume living in an enclosure on someone’s property. Finally, in the deep night, I often awake to the call of the Great Horned Owl in the tree above us. I’m particularly sensitive to owl calls, with a long history of research into their nocturnal habits, and having had close-up conversations with them. Talking with owls is like singing a blues song, a “call and response” rhythm, which intrigues them, being very inquisitive creatures. But they are not too keen to talk with humans. There usually isn’t much reward for the owl in this sort of conversation, unless there are mice, voles, or other small tasty treats to be acquired. By the way, don’t try and make sounds like these tiny creatures, or you will discover how soundlessly—and accurately—an owl can penetrate your personal space.
Flying creatures abound
We’d expect loads of flying bugs near a watery oasis, and our expectations are met with one very positive exception: mosquitoes. I wouldn’t say there are none, but thus far they are very rare…thankfully! We haven’t gotten to the point of attempting to identify the countless species of bugs we encounter over and above the ubiquitous flies, but there are some that look like mosquitoes, but aren’t; critters that look like scorpions, but aren’t; and numerous gnat-like pesky bugs that look like they are imagined, and are. Then there are the 1/16th-inch round flying invaders that figure out how to time their—with your—entry through your door, or any cracks in your bug prophylactics, to hide in dark, out-of-the-way places, to reproduce in abandon. Eliminating these critters brings new life to the game of Whack-a-mole, except if you miss, they scuttle or fly off into unreachable recesses, to begin the game anew. But hey! This is not the Garden of Eden, and there are no mosquitoes, and we have stayed in spots where the mosquitoes can drive caribou and moose mad.
Every so often, as we sit reading or contemplating the ever-unfolding drama of life here at the lake, a deep buzzing drone accompanies a massive bumblebee
that may circle our heads and then head off into the unknown like a blimp with a turbo-charged motor.
The oldest flying creature on earth?
A Flame Skimmer dragonfly
whisks past me heading out to the reed beds mid-lake, the second such encounter in the past few days. An iridescent blue damselfly settled itself to preen on my tablet while I distractedly sat captured by the density of life. I’m reminded that dragonflies have changed little since their first appearance on earth during the Carboniferous period, 250–300 million years ago! Friends, that period predates flowers and dinosaurs by 100 million years. The designation Carboniferous directly points to a time when plants such as ferns and trees dominated a warmer landscape, producing oxygen levels 35% greater than today. Humans couldn’t exist in this atmosphere (some who hold the mistaken belief that we coexisted with dinosaurs notwithstanding). Oxygen toxicity is the reason. Rule of thumb: Too much or too little oxygen, we die. But—the creatures that crawled out of the seas flourished to enormous sizes. Today’s dragonflies are but a shadow of their former seagull-sized selves. It’s hard to comprehend a timeline this vast. This abundance of rich carbon-based life eventually formed layers over time and, as the continents migrated toward each other to produce the giant super-continent, Pangaea, were buried in the folding of the landscape. What somewhat resembled North America then, was primarily under shallow warm seas, but in time, tectonic plate movement pushed up the eastern landmass to create the Appalachian mountain chain. Buried beneath lay rich remnants of the Carboniferous period in the form of coal. Every time I observe a dragonfly pass by, I’m awed at the longevity of this time traveler.
Garden of Eden
The mythology and concept of a serpent in the Garden of Eden comes down to us from multiple religious sources predating Christianity by thousands of years. (Read the epic of Gilgamesh, 2100 BCE, for starters.) There are serpents here as well in our Eden, but we’ve not seen one, nor been tempted by one . . . yet. One of our neighbors here saw a rattlesnake near the waterfall at the far end of our lake. We learned during storytelling that this man’s mother was a showgirl in Las Vegas during the Rat Pack era of the 1940s and ’50s, which allowed his 11-year-old self to regularly meet all the cool movie stars that visited their house for her garden parties. What that has to do with rattlesnakes and serpents is tangential, but his stories of early adventures in the family’s Garden of Eden were the best!
We arrived here on the wing like many of our growing family of stars in this story, in search of refuge from the call for Shelter-in-Place. A few likely spots were nothing but parking lots on asphalt, but this oasis that seemed at first merely adequate has grown into our own Walden Pond of life in the macrocosm—sometimes confused with The Macricosm. The Lake continues to reveal its secrets to us. There is never a dull moment. As I write this, a hummingbird pauses at our window, looks in and winks. Well, so it seems…the game is afoot!
I loved this winged experience by the lake! I could feel the buzz of hummingbirds, geese, ducks, peacocks, and dragonflies.
Ben, I loved this contemplation of winged life in the lake by shelter-in-place home. The descriptions of geese, dragonflies, hummingbirds and more drew me in and I felt I was sitting and observing with you!
Like you said, the things you see when you sit still. I just saw a nature show on dragonflies and how they cross the pacific every 3 years or so to america from africa… or something crazy amazing like that….
I would be very interested in seeing that show if possible! Very fascinating ocean trek! Details? Swifts spend their entire lives in the air, and albatrosses also for the first 4-5 years of their 50 year lives circling the earth! Is this tiny, unique planet amazing or what!? It’s truly special to be a part of it.
Good evidence Ben, that, if you sit in one spot long enough and keep your eyes open, Nature’s many treasures will reveal themselves. Winking hummingbirds, however, will require a tad more documentation.