When I took a walk at the height of our recent ice event, I stood for what seemed like hours at the edge of the lake. Despite the glacial chill in the air and the crunch of ice under foot, life continued at a normal pace for the wildlife that fills the area. I was most impressed by the waterfowl scurrying about their business on placid water so still that its surface froze where it was protected from the lazy waves and animal activity.
The morning air tasted crisp, something akin to a refreshing drink on a hot day, and gray clouds spread like wet cotton across an endless sky. Beneath the gloomy cover and weak light was a large number of American coots (Fulica americana). They busied themselves with a somewhat carefree attitude as they set about their usual activities. Even before most other avian inhabitants had stretched their wings and set out across the water, the coots massed and swam and bathed and hunted with an energetic eagerness.
The mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) on the opposite shore seemed a bit put off by the coots. I noticed the ducks had only just started their morning routines even as the coots engaged the day head-on. With wings stretching and webbed toes sampling the coolness of the water, the mallards watched in dismay as their mornings were invaded by these dark interlopers.
Yet I found myself sharing a bit of that shock when I realized some areas of the lake’s surface had frozen. You might have noticed in the bottom of that photograph where the shore is protected by a fallen tree. Waves and wildlife kept ice from forming on the lake side of that barrier, but the stillness near the shore had allowed a thin layer of tundra to begin reaching toward the depths. I turned to follow the writhing trunk as it stretched along the water’s edge. There, just on the other side of more ice and reaching branches, several coots had approached my position.
The only two mallard ducks willing to start the day early huddled together just off shore amidst the great many coots.
After standing and watching the activity with interest, the whole while snapping photographs, my own fingers began to numb in the freezing temperatures. Light winds blowing off the water did not seem to help maintain my warmth. So I eventually turned and began a slow walk back toward home.
My path kept me near the shore for some distance, first along the lake, then beside the mouth of one the larger creeks feeding the reservoir, and finally along the creek itself. And with each glance over my shoulder, I realized a dozen or more coots followed from a safe yet rapidly closing distance. Were they looking for a handout? Did they believe I was carrying some breakfast treat for them? Or were they curious why the large, lumbering ape was there on such a bitterly chilled day?
I suspected it had more to do with food than anything else. After all, a silly primate wandering about the lake on such a day could have no other purpose than to feed the locals, right? At least that’s what they were thinking, I bet.
At my nearest approach to the creek before starting a slow, lazy arc away from the water and back towards home, the avian stalkers came right up to the place where I stood. Near enough for me to see their breathing, I knelt down precariously on the ice, working diligently not to fall into the dark, cold water. Even the clouds reflecting on its surface appeared all to eager to escape its cold embrace. They raced leisurely across the sky, a herd of whispers colored in the season’s most expected hues.
And yet the coots remained still for one last photo. One particularly close to the shore eyeballed me with eagerness for a handout.
With nothing to offer, I finally stood and backed away from the water. It was then the birds realized I had no treat for them. They sighed with exasperation, turned away from land, and began making their way back into open water. I would swear I heard a few of them discussing the rudeness of the man with the camera, to have lured them in with nothing to offer, and to have wasted a few minutes of their precious time just to grab a picture or two.
Yes, I’d swear I heard that conversation.