Awaiting the glorious show

I am not sure--but I believe I heard the trumpet call of the whistling swans in the creek two days ago. They have not yet appeared and I may have been mistaken. The small flock of white birds which flew overhead toward the Eastern Shore on Sunday was a group of snowy egrets, that I know, for these white herons with the golden slippers are now cleaning the beach every morning. They walk hunchbacked around the eel grass, glowering at me as I approach and then taking off without a sound, their long necks S-curved into their white shoulders. They are not migrants, but their appearance in any abundance is rare in this part of the Chesapeake Bay. To see one or two in the summer is a treat. Yesterday and today I saw seven. They won't go anywhere for the winter that I know of, but I've never seen one around here after the frost.

The large whistling swans, which, in the winter, cruise up and down the shoreline in proud fleets of up to sixty are our showy visitors and are unmistakable. They dine on the bay's abundant eel grass.

Accompanying them at a distance are the mergansers, old squaws, surf scoters, and brants which fly here each autumn to join the more permanent water residents , the gulls, terns, and skimmers. Black ducks are in varied abundance throughout the year, flying back and forth offshore in groups of twos and threes, necks outstretched and with a determined look as though they were pursuing some bargain in mussels and eel grass and afraid of being late. There is much coming and going through the warm months as gulls disappear to nest on secret islands, returning with their mottled brown young in early summer, as willets take over the marshes with their nests and then disappear, as terns mate unashamedly on sand bars and then fly off to honeymoon in some hideaway. Yes, there is a wide and colorful range of feathered residents that use the Chesapeake Bay as their permanent address, and as a weekend door-knocker I am delighted to be in their company.

But as change is the variety that spices all life, so does the dazzle of winter bird plumage startle the eyes accustomed to the soft bird colors of summer. The shape of wings changes, the spectrum of color on the feathers widens. Instead of the mew of the feeding young, we hear the strong call of the flock as it moves and establishes territory.

None of this happens overnight. Sometime after the earth's swing around the sun at equinox, the rays slant into the far north and remind the leader swan of new expectations. There is a gathering, test flights to confirm the itinerary, honking and calling, a nudging of the wings of the young, and then a silence as the spirit of the flock lifts them to the sky.

Once aloft in their V-shaped formation they cruise high against the moon, calling to each other as they go. They land only once or twice on the long trip south to Chesapeake, where they follow the ice-free line of eel grass up and down the bay. Here at the southern tip, just above the Mobjack, the whistling swans usually make their appearance as a Christmas present to this winter visitor.

The bay has waited breathlessly for the swans. Before Thanksgiving the last of the summer spectaculars will have disappeared and the water become gray and drab until the white wings cruise by. The great blue heron and the osprey have gone south for the winter, most of the vacationers have locked their storm windows and turned off the water, northeasters have begun to lash the sand, and the bay has settled down to its long sleep when, behold, the white-winged Cleopatra and her court move up this northern Nile, unhurried, unimpressed.

They are usually with us from Christmas until the ides of March. Sometime after the first full moon of the third month they once again assemble, discuss their destiny, and head north again to their breeding ground above Baffin Bay. This past spring I heard shots one Saturday morning in the pines between here and the Mobjack. I looked back and the swans had flushed like a covey of partridge and were circling above the trees, honking. Although I don't trust all hunters, I don't believe anyone with a gun was doing the illegal, the unthinkable, and aiming at our swans, but it was obvious the sounds were disturbing them.

They flapped and circled in small confused groups, careening in and out of the treetops, bugling to each other. Gradually they cut wider and wider swaths over the woods, more orderly and rhythmic with each pass, until an invisible zipper opened the sky and the wedge of long-necked white swans passed through into the dazzling and reflected sunlight.

A lone crippled bird was left behind. No one knew whether she had taken a bullet in her wing or met with one of nature's accidents, but it was apparent that she could not fly. Yet she was not defeated. We watched her in the shallows until June. She pecked all the feathers off the bad wing and through my field glasses I could see the bony skeleton uncovered by her surgical bill. She learned to feed on sand bars and eventually mastered once again the ''bottoms up'' art of dining underwater. By early summer this miracle of nature had regrown feathers, learned to fly again, and disappeared. We assumed she had set out to rejoin her flock. I wonder if she made it, and if she will be among those returning this year. Bird books say that swans mate for life. This one was either a widow or a spinster, and I imagine life in the rocks and cold winter of the Arctic could be pretty tough without a helpmate.

After thinking it over, I'm sure I did not see the swans the other day. It's too early. The water is still azure, the sands gold yellow. The goldenrod and the mallow bloom. The myrtle is just beginning to show its bayberries, the poison ivy and sumac are tipped with red, and the crickets are warming their cold legs and singing to the sunshine. We have much to look at, and the swans would take second billing to the autumn harvest of colored leaf and seed pod. But no such distinguished visitor would come so early.

Like a prima donna, the swan will wait until the final curtain of the year, until the smaller actors have disappeared into the wings, until the stage is bare and the winter hushed with anticipation. She shares the limelight with no one. As an early ticket holder for the season, I send this rose ahead for the splendor that is to come.

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