Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ducks and What?

As Terra and I returned from a walk, I paused on the deck, and looking down at the edge of Clarks Pond, I saw a head moving through the water. We had just rediscovered an old pair of binoculars that were of dubious value, so I fetched them from the study to try them out. When I returned to the deck, the mammal was hunched over, standing on a submerged section of a fallen tree in the water, the one I had planned to remove. I had envisioned myself floating off shore, sawing sections off and dragging them to shore, so that when I was finished, the shore line would look neat and orderly; though I would have hoped that with all I know, I should have rejected that idea out of hand, but I did not. It took my watching fallen trees in the pond lure wildlife providing convenient places for turtles to sun and for beavers and muskrats to munch, to re-enlighten me. Now I plan for the log and branches to stay till they rot.

"Muskrat." Wikipedia
But as I looked through my binoculars at the surprisingly sharp image, the beaver vs. muskrat question was what occupied my mind. I could not tell whether a muskrat or beaver was hunched over its root gnawing for a bit then slipping back in the water for more. I watched carefully, but it returned to the water each time in a way that concealed its tail. It seemed much too big for a muskrat, which The Washington Post’s kids guide to beavers and muskrats, told me max out at about 4 pounds (while beavers run 35 to 60 pounds).  On the other hand, eventually I saw the whole body as the creature swam and a black tail flagellated as it swam. The Post claimed that if you see only the head (what I saw at first) it is a beaver; the whole body (what I saw later), it’s a muskrat. I don’t think I saw two different animals. I was convinced enough right after sighting it to tell a friend that I had seen a beaver.
"Male Wood Duck" Wikipedia

While I was scrutinizing the mammal, however, a male wood duck swam into the same section of the pond. This ID was positive, since the previous day Madalene had identified the small group of ducks on the pond as wood ducks. I had looked at them through another set of binoculars then, but had seen only a silhouette because of the light. The outline did, however, show the swooping helmet of feathers at the back of the male wood duck’s head. Madalene remarked on the beauty of the wood duck’s coloring, and when I actually saw the color this time, it was dazzling. Both the pattern and color were so extravagant; that natural selection selects for the beautiful suggests some element of mystery embedded in either the process or the substance being processed.

I walked into town to meet Madalene at Flatbread Pizza for supper after her Yoga class. Returning home, as we stepped back onto our deck, I saw the mammal on the log again; this time I looked at it without the binoculars. Much to my surprise, I realized it was tiny, easily no more than four pounds.  The binoculars excluded too much of the context so that my frame of reference slipped. Concentrating too much on too little can lead to errors that seem solid the more so because of the assiduousness with which the erroneous observation was performed. Muir’s comment about how everything is connected works all the way down.

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