Love in Liminal Time

Up here at 47° north latitude, the sun now huddles low above the horizon. Although the yellowing of leaves and the baring of branches lightens the forest somewhat in the few sunlit days we have between the brooding storms, it’s still darker than we’re used to, and our mood shifts. This is our liminal time, the autumnal transition in our personal phenology. We lay logs in our fireplace, forage in the basement for those sweaters we put away last June, enjoy hot soup as we snuggle under a blanket on the couch.

While we’re cozily introverting, a few ducks have other ideas. They’ve spent a long luminous summer puttering around the Inside Passage and southern British Columbia. If we can fancy for a moment what it’s like to be a duck, in summer he’s living in the present, focusing on finding food, maybe dealing with the occasional squabble over a morsel, but mostly just dealing with life as it comes.

But in autumn, something stirs in a duck’s soul. Late October brings the birth of imagination, a sense of something not visible to the eye, but which pulls at the heart. A form of spirituality; an avian Advent. A deep yearning that draws him away from the present, casts him into the air to fly to his future.

Surf Scoter sightings in June-Aug (left) and Oct-Dec (right), 2001-2011. Data from ebird.org.

Hooded Merganser sightings in June-Aug (left) and Oct-Dec (right), 2001-2011. Data from ebird.org.

And now that he’s here in the Salish Sea…it’s time for the dating game! The male Surf Scoter displays his manly skills in a short splashy flight, landing near the object of his desire with wings dramatically uplifted.

Surf Scoter male landing impressively in front of female (out of sight). Vashon Island Ferry Dock, Oct 29 2011.

“And if that’s not enough to impress you, my darling,” he says, “how about my stunning nose? Wouldn’t you love your babies to look like my side of the famly?”

The noblest of noses. Surf Scoter, Vashon Island Ferry Dock, Oct 29 2011.

The smaller Hooded Mergansers are no less dramatic as they perform sexy head-bobs and neck-stretches for their prospective sweethearts.

Hooded Merganser males showing off for female. Sinclair Inlet at Port Orchard, WA, Oct 29 2011.

Hooded Mergansers males in display. Sinclair Inlet at Port Orchard, WA, Oct 29 2011.

(A short video of the males showing off is on my Flickr site.)

The muted brown lady seems not to notice, but apparently she’s keeping track out of the corner of her eye, since this display must have proved successful to have become characteristic of the species. She’ll choose one of the eager suitors to be her mate, find a comfortable hole up in a tree away from predators, and lay a clutch of eggs. A few weeks later, those eggs will turn into some of the most courageous progeny I know of, ready to leap headfirst (literally) into an unknown world for love of mother:

Mandarin Duckling in mid-dive. Still image from BBC Nature video; click on photo for complete 108-sec video--one of my all-time favorites.

(This video is of Mandarin Ducks, but Hooded Merganser ducklings perform the same astounding feat.)

***

And it all begins in this crepuscular time, when light dims and waters are whipped by chill winds. Isn’t it indeed the shadowed times–environmental catastrophe, economic nightmare, personal crisis–that call forth our yearning for something more, something deeper? Isn’t that when we reach out to each other for comfort, not knowing what’s next in the darkness but sensing something beyond our vision, a love worth the leap?

Male Hooded Mergansers courting. Sinclair Inlet at Port Orchard, WA, Oct 29 2011.

And perhaps we do look a bit silly sometimes in our hopeful displays, but that’s only to the rest of the world. Not to the Beloved, the one who matters, the one whose light finally gets us through the darkness. That, and good soup by the fire.

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