I sit on a small bluff overlooking
the Colorado River. From my vantage point I can see
up and downstream, as well as the cottonwood grove
that lines a small island in mid-stream. The island
divides the river in half and creates a slower backwater
on its east side.
I’m pretty comfortable on this March morning
with my thermos of coffee, a “soft” chair
for back support, a spotting scope set up, and my
dog Jessie snoring behind me.
She can’t be too tired from the hike in, but
I am always amazed at how she just drops off into
dreamland. Her legs twitch between snores; she must
be closing in on that elusive jackrabbit.
We are here to watch one of two bald eagle nests
along the Colorado River, but between sessions of
inactivity – one bird is incubating and the
other is perched nearby, I scan the river for waterfowl
and the island for turkeys.
There are gaggles of geese and rafts of ducks scattered
along the river. About sixty Canada geese, with their
distinctive white chin straps, are either lined up
along the river or floating in the island’s
backwater. Since, the river hasn’t really begun
to rise yet this season, there are plenty of shallows
and slow moving sections where the geese gather.
Those birds on the bank spend a great deal of time
preening, neck-thrusting at intruders or shaking
their wings at neighbors. Courtship is underway,
even though the birds are still on migration. Some
may nest here while others are heading north.
Mixed in with the geese are small groups of green-winged
teal, mallards, ring-necks, widgeons, and northern
shovelers. The shovelers are the Pinocchios of the
waterfowl world; their large spatula-shaped bills
are designed to plow through the water, straining
food from the murky bottom. Unlike other dabblers
in the group, shovelers rarely dive or upend themselves.
The widgeons sound like squeaky toys with their high-pitched
calls. These birds have a white forehead stripe that
has earned them the nickname “baldpate.” Similar
to the bald eagle, these birds aren’t featherless
on the head; the name is from an Old English word
I skim through the group of dabblers and locate several
common goldeneyes and a pair of common mergansers.
The goldeneyes are named for their eye color, but
hunters sometimes refer to these birds as “whistlers” for
the sound of their wingbeats. I watch as the goldeneyes
dive after aquatic prey – crayfish, insects,
fishes – then bob to the surface like corks.
Water beads up on their forest-green heads.
The mergansers search for fish, their preferred prey.
Even at a distance I can see their thin orangish
bills. It is amazing that these birds catch small
fish by sight in this muddy river. Perhaps that is
why these birds are here now, for when the snowmelt
begins and the river becomes more turbid a merganser’s
ability to see fish must be greatly reduced.
Even the great blue herons that are stalking prey
in the shallows have limited visibility. But their
stealth and patience pays off as fish rise towards
the surface. With the speed of a speargun, the heron
snatches its prey and swallows it whole.
While watching the waterfowl, I see one eagle leave
its perch and fly low over the river. I imagine the
bird saying “duck, duck, goose!” as a
mass of waterfowl take flight. Some ducks dive for
cover, but the rest – ducks and geese - end
up in a swirling mass. Throughout the chaos, the
eagle doesn’t give chase.
Eventually the eagle flies farther upstream and the
waterfowl settle down. For these birds it’s
just another day on the river, a day of survival.
For me, it is a wonderful way to spend a March day.