Friday, March 9, 2012

Penguin dances at Beaver Lake: Joe Neal report

Yesterday, on the north side of Beaver Lake at Slate Gap, in a cool 
wintery rain, I counted and recounted Horned Grebes and came up with 
only 40. Today, in warm spring sunlight, Joan Reynolds and I returned 
and saw the future, the nesting country of Alaska and northwestern 
Canada: grebes concentrated in long stringy rafts, totaling 339, 
one-third in various stages of molt toward dramatic summer plumage.

Luckily, two popped up near us, blazing red eyes plainly visible and 
both on their way to summer; that is, winter grays starting to blacken 
and turn reddish and golden. As we watched, their swimming turned to 
dramatic rise, facing one another, partially out of the water, 
virtually breast to breast. According to the Birds of North America 
account, two birds "...swim together and rise to perform Penguin 
Dance, maintained by vigorous movements of feet. During Penguin Dance, 
head plumes widely spread. After a few seconds of Penguin-Dancing, 
pair subside..." We were close enough to hear them vocalize.

I'm tempted to share the old canard from my Baptist upbringing: 
Baptist are said to oppose sex because it looks too much like dancing. 
But then, here I am, both parents Baptists! But back to birds: Just 
think, grebes pairing off with penguin dancing in Arkansas, and then 
gone to the northwest, and soon.

It's not just grebes rising. The sunlight invigorated the whole cedar 
glade wildflower scene. Along Slate Gap Road, patches of flowering 
whitlow grass, early buttercups, service berries, and widespread 
redbuds ready to flower. Just above the Beaver dam site shoreline, a 
long sunny glade covered with buttercups, whitlow grass, yellow 
puccoon, false garlic, pussy toes, and several four-petaled minuscules 
for whom I have no name.

The sun was so bright every wave was a floating necklace of diamonds, 
and this doesn't contribute much to picking out birds at long 
distance. But there were at least 8 Horned Grebes, 6 in summer 
plumage, 12 Bonaparte's Gulls seemingly headed nowhere in particular, 
and an immaculate male Red-breasted Merganser loosely associated with 
4 Common Goldeneyes. On our walk back, a clever fence lizard sunning 
and well matched with gray glade rocks, in no rush that I could see, 
lazy eye cocked in our direction.

JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas
"I loaf and invite my soul..." -- Walt Whitman

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