It was our third weekend in a row to go cross-country skiing! This time, we decided to drive to Eagle Bluffs, a state conservation area about 10 miles a way from our home. First of all, the snow there would be untouched, and also, just before the storm, we had seen white pelicans there.
Pelicans used to be unheard of in Missouri. Yet about 20 years ago, the Missouri Department of Conservation built a wetlands area with a series of ponds at Eagle Bluffs, and over the years all kinds of birds began – no pun intended –flocking there. Some of them stay permanently, while others, including the pelicans, stop there on their migration north.
I must admit that I never cared for birds when I lived in Moscow. There, if we had creatures with wings, they were mostly flies, mosquitoes, sparrows, or pigeons. If you wanted to see anything else, you went to a zoo, where you could observe parrots, flamingos, whatever!
The best thing about this arrangement was that everybody knew exactly where they stood: people strolled along the asphalt paths outside the metal bars, and the winged inmates flittered – or swam — inside their cages. Not till I found myself in the United States, did I encounter people who willingly go into the wilderness (my analog to being sent to Siberia!), armed only with binoculars and field guides with the sole purpose of watching birds. Even worse, I managed to marry one of these people.
This fact, of course, didn’t come out before our wedding, so when I first spotted a pair of binoculars in my new husband’s possessions, I took them for a vestige of his military past — in his twenties, he spent two years in the army. But then, several months into our marriage, I caught him standing by the rear view window looking fixedly through the binoculars. What was he looking at? There was no beautiful woman undressing in front of her window across the street, nor even people having sex! In fact, there was nothing behind our house but the woods! Yet there he was – watching a couple of woodpeckers hammering away on a tree behind our deck.
Later, my husband invited me to walk in the nearby woods and told me names of everything that flew by. And shortly afterwards, he drove me to one of those bird infested areas that the state of Missouri is so proud of.
For a while, I kept humoring him, hoping that time would weaken his obsession. But when a pair of binoculars and “The Birds of North America Field Guide” found their permanent location next to my husband’s place mat, I got ready for a fight. Not with the birds of North America, of course, but with the place they took in my husband’s heart and, especially, on my dining table.
The thing about me is that I’m neat. I’m the kind of person who goes around picking up things and making sure that everything on the surface is arranged symmetrically. In my world, binoculars do not belong on the dining table, neither as tableware nor as decorations. This nonsense had to be stopped!
At first, I decided to buy a bird feeder, so instead of us driving around looking for birds, they would look for our feeder, and we’d save time and gas. Unfortunately, the bird feeder idea didn’t work (more of that later), and neither did other solutions I learned about while researching obsessive-compulsive disorders. I considered marriage counseling, too. Yet in the end, I gave up. What did it matter that I used to be a sophisticated Muscovite who frequented the Bolshoi Theater and the Moscow Conservatorium, and read a magazine called “Foreign Literature”? Things change, and, as those of us who have lived long enough know, they rarely change for better :(. And truthfully, worse things could’ve happened to me. I could’ve married a bigamist or a serial killer, or even a Republican!
Today, some years later, I recognize quite a few birds, and I find white pelicans — so clumsy and weird-looking in the Moscow Zoo — beautiful. And since the pelicans graced our area with their presence, we headed there, too.
I also had another goal in mind. Ever since I caught photography fever and started participating in wordpress photo challenges, I’ve been on the lookout for things that go with their current themes, which this time is “Lost in the details.” It’s actually not about getting lost, but about getting closer and noticing small detail, and Eagle Bluffs was as good place as any to do it.
We drove until the road became impassible, put on our skis, and I hung my camera over my neck. The heavy snow of an earlier storm was covered with fresh powder, and our skis glided easily over its sparkling surface. We passed by several ponds spotting only Canada geese, who protested our invasion by honking loudly and flapping their wings.
Feeling disappointed, I began taking pictures of snow-covered bushes, animal tracks, and hawk’s feathers lying on the ground.
But as we approached yet another pond, we suddenly saw royal-white silhouettes on the cold-gray surface of water.
The pelicans swam aimlessly around the pond, back and forth. Every so often, they dived, so that all we could see was their snow-white rears, but they quickly appeared on the surface with their large yellow beaks up and their necks stretched, and then their shuttle-like floating continued. They moved in perfect unison with their bodies touching each other and their beaks pointing in the same direction, and their motions looked like a mysterious ritual or a perfectly choreographed dance.
Careful not to scare the birds, I skied to the water’s edge and began taking pictures. When my camera’s memory card ran out of space, I looked at my husband and said, “What are they doing?”
“I think they are feeding,” my husband said. “Look, they’re herding the fish!”
“What do they lift their beaks for?”
“They swallow the fish, don’t you see?”
He was right; it wasn’t a dance or a ritual, and the birds weren’t swimming for pleasure. They were working, preparing themselves for the long journey still ahead of them.
“Why are they moving in unison then?” I said, puzzled.
“It must be more efficient that way,” my husband said. “You’d think that every one of them could have more fish on her own, but that’s not the case. Like us, they do better together.”
We watched the pelicans a little longer, but then we left them to their business and headed for the car.
“At our age we’re still learning about nature,” my husband said contemplatively on our way home.