“Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world? Why has man just these species of animals for neighbors, as if nothing but a mouse could fill this crevice?”
— Henry David Thoreau, “Brute Neighbors,” Walden
After a right-angle turn in the trail, a long bridge spans a shrub swamp and tidal slough. On several occasions in recent weeks, I’ve had reason to pause on the bridge and take notice. Even if the trail didn’t continue to the lighthouse, it would be worth the walk just to enjoy this view of the marsh and see the seasons in transition.
February 19: Inside a hollow cottonwood branch overhanging the bridge an anonymous visitor placed a plush toy, a stuffed light-brown bat peering out at passersby at eye level. Although it is peculiar, there is something satisfying about this whimsical occupant of the tree. It illustrates how a playful imagination instinctively wants to populate these nooks and crannies. It is also a reminder of all the real animals — seen and unseen — that make their homes in this corner of the woods.
February 25, midday: A pair of chickadees explored a cavity in a decayed branch, seeking a suitable nesting chamber. If they are unhappy with the choices of natural cavities, they will carve their own in keeping with the vernacular architecture of the swamp forest.
The concept of an ecological niche derives its explanatory power from these physical niches — hollow logs, rock recesses, upturned roots, stumps, burrows, earthen mounds, holes in the underbrush. “Niche” is evocative of a snug fit into a particular place. It stirs the imagination to think of all the creatures that abide here in close proximity to one another.
What subterranean chambers are accessed through a small opening in the ground or hidden rooms are inside an old tree? The long-tailed weasel will find out as it pokes its head into every possible hole, hollow, or crevice for a potential meal. As secretive as it is curious, the one that lives hereabouts is seen but rarely.
In addition to chickadee and weasel, our neighbors include field mouse, muskrat, gray squirrel, mallard duck, heron, gull, woodpecker, beaver, bald eagle, raccoon, opossum, skunk, mink, turtle-dove, and honey bee, to name but a few. It’s a rough neighborhood. We choose our friends, but rarely choose our neighbors.
A good neighbor is a blessing. A nasty neighbor can be the bane of one’s existence. Fortunately, I don’t have any quarrels with my immediate neighbors, even though they are a wild bunch (and I have a few unprintable words for the mice nesting in the shed), so long as they don’t antagonize me too much or impede my way home.
February 25, dusk: In response to footfalls on the bridge planks, the beaver slapped its tail on the water as a warning, as if to say, “My turf!” A mallard squawked in protest, too. Several months ago, the beaver dammed the tidal slough beneath the bridge, creating a small pond among the swamp shrubs in which the mallard has taken up residence. Where the slough empties over the jetty in to the creek, the beaver piled up slender branches in the water for a winter cache of food. Farther along it mounded up a lodge atop the jetty. Now that the creek is clear of ice, the beaver is free to roam its watery domain. If the splash of its tail is any indication of the size of the beaver, I’ll keep to the bridge and won’t dispute the beaver’s claim.
The footpath to the lighthouse threads through a patchwork of claims and overlapping territories. These are not posted and do not appear on any map. On sunny days, a cardinal sings his claim over the first leg of the trail. A downy woodpecker drums on a dead tree to announce his domain. From the crotch of a tree, a squirrel barks in protest at my passage. The assertion of these territories waxes and wanes with the seasons.
February 26, sunset: In the treetops across the creek, flocks of red-winged blackbirds congregate at sunset. As one mass, they take flight, swoop, turn, and settle back onto their roost. In the coming weeks, the larger winter flocks will disperse. The males will flash their red epaulettes and stake their territories among the cattails. My guidebook explains that males spend several hours a day defending their territory from rivals during breeding season. Once a male woos a female to his cattail kingdom, she weaves together several upright stems to support a nest.
February 27, sunset: No description of the neighborhood would be complete without mention of the resident bald-eagle pair. Their nest is on the other side of the river, but their daytime roosts are on this side of the Hudson. One of their favorites can be glimpsed from the long bridge looking southeast. While ice remained in the creek, they frequented this perch together, eyeing mergansers congregating in the open water and diving along the edge of the ice. During the winter, the resident pair tolerate other eagles within their range, but as breeding-time nears they become less patient with interlopers.
In recent days, their attention has turned more to the nest. Reports from downriver via the Hudson River Almanac indicate that three other nesting pairs are already incubating eggs, earlier than previous years. Even if the local pair are behind their southerly compatriots, their behavior suggest that they will start any day now. If eggs are laid this week, they will hopefully lead to a successful hatch in early April.
Patrick Landewe is the Saugerties Lighthouse Keeper. His column appears monthly.