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Down on the Farm -- Life in the swamp

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The swamp out my front window is waking up.

Two nights ago, thousands of frogs started spring choral practice. A week earlier, the red-winged blackbirds returned with their metallic trill, swaying on the tips of the cattails.

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A pair of great white egrets spent a morning on the pond before I opened my pickup door and the ding-ding-ding noise scared the two Dr. Suess-like birds into a clumsy take-off.

Two merganser ducks have taken over the pond in front of the house. A comical pair, the male dons a bizarre white and black crown while the dowdy female sports a dyed-red punk hairdo that looks like a nerdy kid at school trying to be cool but not quite pulling it off.

Mergansers are too nervous to be cool. They flit around like insects, suddenly flying away as if on an important mission, then landing in trees, croaking like frogs, and returning to the pond.

Every now and then, a pileated woodpecker bounces across the swamp. You can tell it is him because he flaps just once--enough to keep him airborne--and then folds up his wings and coasts until he starts to fall. Then, one more wing beat to keep airborne. The big woodpecker's flight path is like the blue dot on a heart monitor.

Up by the house, the gold finches gobble thistle, their feathers turning a brighter yellow by the day. Purple finches have replaced the redpolls as the red bird at the feeder.

Kamikaze junkos crash against the windows every morning. Two weeks ago a jihadist Cooper's hawk attacked a chickadee reflection. He's now decomposing peacefully under the spirea.

Meanwhile, the permanent residents, chickadees and nuthatches, fade to the background, sort of like the locals do when the loud lake people from the Cities show up.

Out on the swamp, a pair of Canadian honkers makes a racket. They'd be beautiful if they weren't so common. The geese look like they are nesting, but that will end when the swans take over and evict any rival of comparable size from the swamp.

When the winds finally died down and we had our first pristine, perfectly still sunset last week, I walked out on a peninsula which protrudes into the swamp with my camera to see if I couldn't catch the mergansers up close.

It was a futile mission. Mergansers are too skittish. Once they panicked and left, the pair of geese, after bickering like a dysfunctional couple at the grocery store, finally agreed just to leave.

Just when I was ready to gather up the tripod and head back to the house, I heard wings rustling. Huge wings. A second later, a pair of trumpeter swans, the B-52 of birds, emerged over the trees.

When such a majestic scene arrives and you have a camera in your hand, the question becomes, do I try to snap pictures or do I just enjoy the moment?

I chose to click away. The swans circled, flew out of sight, circled again, threatened to land--and three times passed about 20 feet over my head, probably trying to intimidate the swamp's largest intruder into leaving the area.

Adding to the swan's majesty was their silence. Capable of disturbing the entire neighborhood with their trombone-like blasts, they circled without more than a couple of quick bumps on their horn.

Picture-taking was futile. I'd focus, then try to click the shutter, but by the time my finger moved, the focus had changed.

Looking back, it was a little stupid. Instead of taking part in the grand scene by standing still and absorbing it, I fiddled with a gadget designed to steal the moment for use at a show-and-tell session at work the next morning.

Out of the 132 pictures, three turned out. People in the lunchroom said they were nice. My ego was massaged, as if I were somehow responsible for the swans flying over and looking so grand.

But to the stately swans looking down, I must have looked nervous and nerdy--sort of like a merganser duck.

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