At first glance, the marsh looks almost barren in wintertime, particularly at low tide. Broken cattail remains dot the mud and the bare branches of silky dogwood and buttonbush appear as frozen as the ice that clings to the Potomac River shoreline. As I braced myself against the biting wind, the bright February sunlight did little to warm me and I wondered yet again how the waterfowl swimming and feeding just beyond the ice can live, and even thrive, in the cold.
The boardwalk runs between the river and the marsh, at the intersection of the two ecosystems, and offers abundant opportunity to observe the life of both. There were not many ducks in the marsh but on the river they were feeding, splashing and calling with abandon. Furthest out were the diving ducks- the common mergansers, hooded mergansers, American widgeons and buffleheads and for the most part, each species swam alone, not mingling with others not of its own kind. Closer in to shore were the dabbling ducks, puddle ducks as they are sometimes called, the mallards and black ducks whose bottoms we often see as they tip their heads underwater to feed. This area of the Potomac is rich in the aquatic plant life, fish and crustaceans that sustain the waterfowl who make this area their winter home and the boardwalk is an excellent vantage point from which to learn more about them all.
Though I enjoy watching waterfowl, my attention turned to the bald eagle pair perched on a large sycamore nearby. The female should be laying her first egg any day now and, though I think I know which nest they will adopt, I won’t be sure until she is sitting still for a while. I have come to quietly watch and wait and, perhaps, to discover.
Absorbed in the eagles, I suddenly became aware other movement I hadn’t noticed before. The dabbling ducks were on the move from the river into the marsh. At first just a few pairs of mallards flew over but shortly thereafter groups of eight and ten followed, wings whistling softly as they passed over my head and disappeared into the channels between the cattails. Within a short time, the two hundred mallards and black ducks who had been on the river had flown into the marsh and the seemingly lifeless wetland was alive with sound and splashing and what seemed like joy at arriving home again. I puzzled about their mini-migration for a while and finally realized that it had to do with tidal ebb and flow. The tide was low when I had first arrived and the marsh was drained. While I had been focusing on waterfowl and eagles, however, the river was slowly and steadily streaming in once again and at some definitive moment the marsh held enough water for the ducks to resume maneuvering and feeding in their favored setting.
Once again I was reminded that there is always, always something new to be learned when venturing outside, whether we live on the border of wild land or in a suburban community. No matter where we are, we have daily opportunities to expand our understanding of the natural world just by opening our eyes and minds. If taken, those opportunities will also bring a renewed sense of the joy of discovering something that we hadn’t known or noticed before. What will the day bring to you? Keep your eyes open and senses attuned and find out. At the end of the day, you will feel richer for what you have learned.