The Fayette Citizen-Weekend Page

Wednesday, January 3, 2001

Notes from a river - bugs and birds


Some notes made on the Tennessee River last spring:

Chuck Will's Widow sounded off suddenly after twilight had silenced the other birds last evening. Even now, with sunlight burning shyly through the river fog, the customary birdsong has not returned, except for a solitary cardinal with a downward turn to his song of "cheer-cheer-cheer."

The sky is impossibly blue, the new leaves a hopeful green. Coffee cup in hand, I see something flutter from the trees to the water a hundred yards or so behind the boat. I can see it struggling in the water, and worry that it might be a bird.

It's not a bird. A katydid? I wonder, although it's too early for that late summer singer. Maybe a large grasshopper, or a luna moth. I see pale green, stiff wings and watch its desperate attempts to regain the air, to no avail.

"A bass is going to have a good breakfast," I point out to Dave, and watch for the inevitable. Finally the insect is still, and I can see just his head above the water. He's either drowned or too exhausted to forestall certain death.

My attention turns to my efforts to call in some birds. When I look back to where the insect was, I notice he is fluttering again. Surely, I think, if a fish doesn't take bait like that, a bird will. But, oddly, the swallows that dip and skim and feed on the river in great numbers are absent just now.

Next time I look back to where I'd left the green bug, I see to my amazement that it has climbed out of the water and is clinging to the top of a small log that emerges at an angle from the river. It is indeed a luna moth, drying delicate wings in the sun. And so he remains until we leave, still vulnerable to flying predators, but safe from the turtles and fish that feed in the water.

Our interesting close encounters with bugs last spring included almost none with mosquitoes. Reading late one evening, we realized we had not put the screens in the open doorways, and yet there was no pesky humming in our ears. All this water, all these marshlands, but it is the policy of the TVA to vary the water level by a few inches every week or so, and that disturbs mosquitoes' breeding habitat.

Saw lots of bats too, and ever-present swifts, swallows and flycatchers. And so one of those "chicken-or-egg" questions: Were the aerial exterminators plentiful because there used to be lots of mosquitoes, or were the mosquitoes scarce because there were lots of hungry birds?

One very hot afternoon, we pulled over to swim in the Holston River just a few yards above where it marries the French Broad and gives birth to the Tennessee. (We stopped there not only to swim, but to celebrate the addition of another river-head, the Tennessee's, to our collection. The ideal hobby for seniors, "collecting" sources of rivers, requires travel but no shelf space, cataloging or dusting.)

It would be our last dip into moderate water for awhile. The water in the French Broad comes down from the mountains and is colder than that of the Holston by at least nine degrees.

As we carefully wedged the boat between two broken tree trunks near the bank, we noticed a dragonfly thrashing frantically in a spider's web. Dave reached across with the boat hook and dragged the filament off the stump. Now the poor tethered insect flew in circles around the boat hook.

At last, Dave managed to pull off the last of the entangling silk and the pretty flier was free. We wondered if he had any perception of the bug-sized miracle that had just taken place.

Or if the spider went hungry that afternoon.

Later in the week we anchored next to Looney Island just downstream from Knoxville. They should have called it Heron Island for its abundance of great blues and night herons. I made notes in an attempt to capture their incessant racket. There was the rusty pump: Gatcheta-gatcheta-gacheta! The puppy: Yip-yip-yip! Most delightful of all, especially at dinner time, the gagging cow: Gawp! Gawp! Gak!Gak!Gak!

Odd noise affects otherwise rational people oddly. Last winter we were moored in Deep Creek off the St. John's River in central Florida and, as afternoon lengthened, we saw that across the cove from us was a rookery of ibis and egrets. A dozen or so were vying for their preferred perches in the trees when we dropped anchor, then more and more flew in, and the thicket turned white with birds. The cacophony was amazing, like a chicken yard full of birds with very sore throats and an attitude.

And I found myself thinking of how birds have lent color to our language. We speak of birds of a feather flocking together, and getting one's feathers ruffled, and ruling the roost and pecking orders and birds in the hand and as the crow flies. We know coots scoot and ducks duck and terns turn.

Do grebes grieve? Or do limpkins limp? I wonder if egrets, herons and ibis make puns about us, and hold their wing tips over their ears when we roar in stadiums or chant in demonstrations under the palm trees..


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