MUSINGS of a Magpie Mind

(Bits and pieces of history, travel and trivia, collected over the years by Bill Greenwell)

Murder most fowl.

(But a good deed saves the day.)

My wife and I are lake dwellers here in the Valley and have enjoyed this lifestyle for 20-odd years.

We’ve always looked upon our good fortune not just as a privilege but also as a sort of responsibility, because living by fresh water creates a special involvement where helping to sustain the natural world around us is an obvious priority. Although each year we’ve worked hard to enhance our surroundings and make the most of our sunny, benign climate, the lake is a constant living presence which anchors us here and makes each day a little different. Being a peripatetic immigrant, I’ve never lived at one address for so long and the main reason is out there every day – the big sky, the restless water, the moods of nature and of course the creatures that share our environment.

Although the scene seems abundant and thriving, perhaps all is not well in this idyll, because despite our efforts, and those of our neighbours, plus our local government’s determination to maintain this pristine water environment for all to enjoy, our lake is changing.

The habitat is not what it was. Though the heron still stalks the shallows, the kingfisher still sparkles on his way to his favourite roost and the fishing is great, (thanks to our friends at the local fresh water hatchery), we wonder what has happened to the turtles that used to sun themselves on the nearby log? Where are the water rats which paddled across our view with jaws clamped on nest-building tufts? Where are the ospreys that entertained us daily with their plunging dives for unwary basking trout? On one particular day 20 years ago I was able to count 17 different bird species in the garden, including one beautiful, menacing presence – a sparrow hawk that quelled the chirping and sent the lively lot into hiding. Today we’d be lucky to perhaps find a dozen different species.

However, out on the water we can always rely on one feathered character to herald the changing season and remind us that new life is happening all around us. I’m talking about the mallard of course, that hardy little duck, the ancestor of almost all waterfowl around the world. Mallards present us each year with the spectacle of proud parenthood. Suddenly we spy the first family out there, in line ahead, mom in the lead, looking very pleased with herself, with half a dozen or more little brown fuzzballs paddling like crazy to keep up.

But invariably a couple of huge shadows arrive to cast a pall over our delight and though we often hurry down to the dock in the hope of shooing off this threat, those magnificent, low-circling bald eagles, determined and deadly, glide silently a few feet over the waterside bushes where the family is hiding.

At the same time another predator is waiting in the rushes: the big ugly American bullfrog, an unwelcome alien that now infests our Island lakes.

So, we have to accept that nature takes its toll, and we ruefully keep tabs on the attrition rate, regularly counting the survivors and hoping that enough ducklings live to provide next year’s population. And to help to make this happen, we use the old floating walkway which was here when we bought the property. It has been put to good use, tucked underneath some overhanging trees and the little families take turns using it as a refuge for sleep.

I’ve rigged an old, tall fishing rod at the end and attached some orange survey tape that flutters in the wind. It happily deters aerial predators.

Living close to nature reminds us that life can be cruel, but occasionally we can make a positive contribution that helps compensate a little for this situation.

For instance, during the recent long weekend, a couple of friends who were staying with us noticed that a mother duck, paddling with her brood close to the dock, was in real trouble. A fishing hook was stuck in her neck, with the lure and lead sinker weight attached, and she was trailing a length of nylon line as she swam.

Somewhere on the lake she had fouled a fisherman’s cast and the line had been cut.

We tried for a frustrating hour to tempt her within reach of my large salmon net, yet despite her entanglement she kept her distance, but was visibly exhausted.

She managed to jump onto the old duck dock and we all agreed that the only way she could be snared was if the weight dangling from her neck could get hung up on something while she was there.

We knew that possibility was highly unlikely, and we despaired of what else we could do.

Then, miracle of miracles, within 10 minutes I was called back down to the dock to find our duck trapped head down unable to move. The weight had fallen through a space in the dock and jammed.

She was obviously choking. Now this old dock doesn’t have much flotation, so it floods if stepped on, but grabbing scissors and gardening secaturs, I managed to crawl across the planks towards her, while our young friend Laurel, sitting on an inflatable in the water alongside, made sure she didn’t break free. Between us, we subdued the terrified, flapping bird and eventually cut away the lure, the weight and the line.

The hook took a little more time to dislodge, but thankfully it wasn’t barbed and had only penetrated the skin. We bundled the duck up, took her ashore and spent the next few minutes stroking and soothing her.

Then she was gently popped back into the water to join her family and we all felt pretty darned pleased with ourselves.

So did the duck, I imagine. A few days later I was visited by an earnest young woman from Animal Rescue, who explained that she had been calling at each household around the lake to check on a report that a duck had been entangled and injured in some fishing gear. I nodded and told her that we had taken care of the situation. She was startled and initially assumed that I had caught the bird and put it out of its misery, but was delighted to learn that between us we had actually saved the day.

She quickly got on her mobile to headquarters, the Wildlife Centre on Salt Spring Island, and passed the phone to me to fill in the details. I was very pleased to talk with these dedicated people and to better understand the role they play in animal welfare. Our conversations quite made my day.

So, life’s full of little surprises and occasionally a challenge or two to liven our long Cowichan summers, and we’re always pleased to share this oasis with family, friends and their kids, who really enjoy the fun that the water provides.

But then of course the shorter days arrive, when the earth goes to sleep and so much of

what we’ve worked on during the gardening year has exhausted itself in faded and falling colours. We’ve raked the debris, the potting shed is piled with empty barrels and baskets and we sit back, thankful for another wellspent spring, summer and fall.

But out there, over the water, the action seldom pauses even on cold blustery days. The moods are different and darker, but fresh life arrives to lighten our scene.

Soon after the Canada geese have winged away in their hundreds, the new arrivals paddle by – all sorts of migratory wildfowl – the little grebes, coots and buffleheads, the big mergansers and the occasional loon.

They’re all well able to look after themselves, but we make sure there’s always lots of seed and suet in the feeders for those who stay here with us for the winter, but prefer not to get their feet wet.

Nature sure is wonderful. But "Does that include deer?" I’m sometimes asked. Well, let’s not go there.

(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)

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