A Cape Cod Notebook: 7/22/08

ListenBirds on the Pond

By Robert Finch

I untie the mooring line of my rowboat, and as I do I hear the faint sound of a passing jet out of Boston booming high overhead. As though in response, the hidden bullfrogs along the shore commence grunting with a loud, vibrating, loosely-rhythmic din. The frogs' pulsing chorus reminds me of the booming ice expanding across the frozen pond in January. Now the voice of the pond is in a summer idiom.

As I climb into the boat and launch myself out onto the water, its bright, broad surface expands away from me with wind-riffled promise. The pond surface is a great, changing interface of water and air, penetrated with life that is constantly dipping into, rising from, or moving over it. From the shore to the west, a pair of kingfishers swoops and rattles from bush to bush in their usual manner. Big-headed, massive-billed, with a fierce, flat-topped crest, the slate-blue male swings out from shore up to a height of twenty feet over the water, hovers there for ten seconds or more with fluttering energy, then swings away again. The minnow it had its eye on is unaware that it has momentarily escaped this iridescent angel of death.

Swallows are also out over the pond, emerald-backed tree swallows, banking and wheeling after flying insects. One skips along the surface, dipping its beak into the pond every few yards. Swallows, it seems, even drink on the wing.

Far out, a flock of gulls forms a white circle in the center of the pond. They rest as light as dust motes on the surface. Every now and then the entire flock lifts suddenly, in a beautiful, upward, revolving motion. They circle out wider and wider over the blue waters like airborne ripples. The larger black- back gulls are deeper-voiced and more aggressive than the herring gulls, and appear to have increased their numbers this year.

From the south a trio of black-headed laughing gulls flies out over the pond. These birds are visitors from the colony of laughing gulls on Monomoy Island, eight miles to the southeast in Nantucket Sound. Near my boat a single tern hovers, a least tern, also miles from its nesting colony on some saltwater beach. The tern flutters and dives, like a miniature bomber, piercing the surface and rising again, flinging out spray from its wings like silver rays. Its bill comes up empty, but it is undeterred, and dives again, over and over.

What accepts all this activity - the rattling plunges of the saber-beaked kingfisher, the delicate dips and plucks of swallow bills, the acrobatic of coupled dragonflies, the sudden slaps of leaping perch - is the mutable and unbroken film of the pond surface. It bisects the painted and spotted turtles sunning on half-submerged logs, the green frogs squatting like glowing jewels in the shaded shallows, the silent stalking legs of a great blue heron. It floats lily pads, duckweed, rafts of marsh grass. It supports the crossing of water striders, wind-blown pollen, gossamer-spinning spiders, and with unbiased generosity, carries the red hull of my small boat across its placid expanse.