Long Cove

Jeffrey R. Welsh

April 05, 1991|By Jeffrey R. Welsh

IT LOOKS for all the world like a Louisiana bayou. It is a long, narrow cove, wooded on both sides, and its end is invisible from our house. It is so shallow that exceptionally low tides can empty it entirely.

When we built our house 10 years ago, I gave it little thought. But over time Long Cove has become a focal point of our life in the woods. It is in the cove that the seasons' changes are most apparent, and it is here that special things happen.

Deer come to its edge to drink. Once we stopped to watch two spotted fawns exploring below the bank, appearing and disappearing behind the overhanging branches and leaves. Their mother was not to be seen.

Once, when all the waters of the Eastern Shore were frozen, a red fox trotted down the middle of the cove. Another time we found the dogs barking furiously and running into the water. A rarely seen otter was swimming 10 yards offshore, apparently searching for its mate. When the dogs went into the water, the otter avoided them with casual ease.

Each October, when the dogwoods are turning bright orange-red against a background of beech and oak, when the viburnum is heavy with red berries, Long Cove becomes irresistible. Each night soon after dark, Canada geese glide in for a night's shelter. Through the night, their steady calling and occasional alarms play on the fringes of even the deepest sleep.

Mornings, the geese idle along the length of the cove, close against the far bank. They are not easily frightened, and the morning routines of feeding cats and dogs and hanging out laundry do not hasten their departure. In their own good time, the Canadas -- now with the morning sunlight turning their breasts golden orange -- will begin paddling toward the creek, where they will join hundreds more geese departing in flight after noisy flight.

Ospreys patrol the cove, diving for fish. Great blue herons stalk its length. Small darting brown herons and kingfishers pose on the branches of oaks that have toppled into the water over the decades.

A couple of years ago, I was startled to realize that the bald eagle I had been seeing was indeed two bald eagles, and that they had come to Long Cove on business. Directly across the water from our house, about 100 yards distant, stands a tall loblolly pine. And in the top of that pine the eagles were building a nest.

They began their work as winter set in, and for months they added branch after branch to the enormous structure. With binoculars, we could watch them alight on the side of the nest, clutch a branch in their talons, then carefully add it to the structure. The ground below was littered with timber dropped or rejected by the builders. Frequently, we would see the birds resting side by side at the end of the day, white heads and breasts lighted by the setting sun.

Then one day there was an anomaly in the shape of the nest. One of the eagles was sitting inside. There must be eggs in the nest! We would, if we were lucky, watch young eagles hatch and learn to fly. For week after week, the white head poked up over the rim of the nest, patient beyond imagining.

The mate would be gone for hours, its return marked by calls that were answered by the bird in the nest. One or the other would perch on a branch nearby and tear at a fish. Some cool spring evenings, both eagles would sit together in a nearby tree. And, on one memorable Sunday afternoon, the nesting eagle suddenly joined its mate in the sky, and the two began an intricate flight of courtship and celebration, soaring and swooping, weaving elaborate patterns in the air. In a few minutes their flight took them beyond the trees and out of sight.

The nesting continued into spring. We went about our business, spending less time watching. Then one day I realized that I had not seen or heard the eagles for a long time and began to watch more closely. They were gone! Anticipation turned to disappointment. What had happened? Had the eagles been killed? Had someone raided the nest for the eggs? Whatever, Long Cove became a barren place, the nest a dark symbol of how Earth's creatures are disappearing.

I would occasionally catch a glimpse of the nest between the thick summer leaves, surprised to remember it was there. I would watch for a moment or so, hoping to see one of our eagles, but they were gone. I gave little thought to Long Cove during the summer.

A year passed, and then late last autumn I saw two white-headed shapes flying along the length of the cove, nest high. They disappeared beyond the river. I cannot imagine their purpose; perhaps they were reminding other creatures that the territory is theirs, perhaps drawn by memory and old habit.

From time to time since then the eagles have appeared in the morning, perched on a tree or patrolling the field on the opposite side of the house, but never near the nest. I have seen them more often in another part of the woods, and I suspect they have found another nesting place. Their old nest became as forlorn as a long-abandoned farmhouse.

But two weeks ago, we discovered that the nest was again occupied! The impassive face of a great horned owl stared over the edge, a new tenant. And this time we were not to be disappointed. Duncan, the naturalist in the family, was the first to spot them -- two large, white, furry creatures alive in the enormous nest at the top of the pine free, a pair of owlets. They perch side-by-side and mimic the daytime stillness of the adult.

It will always be the eagles' nest, no matter who lives there. But this summer we will encourage the house cats to sleep inside and study the progress of owls instead of eagles. And Long Cove -- well, it's a gift, and one I keep learning to appreciate in new ways.

Jeffrey R. Walsh lives near Chestertown. -

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