A party of tufted ducks on Grasmere in the Lake District features in this piece of nature writing. As per usual, this work can be read as a stand-alone piece; however, it is a sequel to A Mute Swan Living on the Edge, so you may wish to read that first.
A Party of Tufted Ducks
The gentlest of swashes and sploshes coincide with my gingerly-placed footsteps as I wend my way along the fringe of Grasmere’s shallows, the stretch of territory where water and pebbly shore merge into one, so that, for the most part, I avoid the heavy hominin and canine traffic that inundate the footpath.
Far out on the lake, I discern a small party of tufted ducks, three males and two females, the former distinguishable by the white of their flanks next to the black of the rest of their visible feathers. The white, however, is not clean and crisp, but crepuscular, clouded with duskiness.
The females are a blend of chocolate browns, the back and head markedly darker than the milky brown breast and flanks.
The bills of both sexes exhibit a pale blue hue as if stained with ink that won’t fully wash out, and their eyes, like all eyes, are out of this world, so vividly yellow they are, that they light up like luminous studs.
And then, of course, there is the tuft after which these ducks are named, a slender tuffet of feathers that curves down over the back of their heads.
Aligned side by side, the tufted ducks edge their way forward through the water on which they float, before, all of a sudden, diving into the depths, one by one, until, very soon, every one of them is gone. Shimmering, silvery turbulence churns up the water’s surface, the only thing to now provide the slightest inkling of their whereabouts.
The best part of a minute passes by, yet, astoundingly, they are still out of sight, still down there diving, on a single breath surviving. Then, out of the blue, one pops up, its buoyancy providing it with remarkable impetus; like a beach ball released underwater, its momentum thrusts it very nearly into the air.
A second duck re-emerges, and then, sure enough, a third, fourth and fifth, all five alive, all five well.
Realigned in search party formation, the small congregation swims on, topping up their internal oxygen tanks in preparation for a second underwater sojourn.
Washed up, right on the rim between water and land, is a row of dainty, white swan feathers. Every feather is still, for there is nothing to move them, not even the slightest zephyr. The small feathers’ shafts are smoothly curved, much like the rockers of a cradle. Each one is poised on one long edge or, alternatively, on the midpoint of its convex surface so that its ends point to the sky.
On the landward side of the line of feathers, scores of pebbles produce a pearly lustre thanks to a thin, liquid envelopment. The yellow topaz and toffee browns of the fallen pinnate, palmate and oval leaves of ash, maple and beech, supplement the potpourri of shapes and colours that enriches this charming route.
The short, chirrupy trills from a dipper flying by cause me to look up. The bundle of energy flies low over the water, its wings beating hurriedly. It comes to rest at the mouth of a small stream that feeds into the lake, but, given barely a chance to perform even a characteristic bob, it is moved on by man’s best friend.