Wild Things down by the Eightmile River,
While not exactly a wild thing myself (rising 73) I do consider the Eightmile River, just across our hayfield in southeastern Connecticut, to be part of my natural habitat. I share it with other species.
Unlike many once wild places nationwide, mine is largely intact.
This modest river sustains mink, wood ducks, great blue herons, native brook trout, and the odd otter, to name just a few denizens. I visit regularly as well, to sit on its west bank and ponder —or to wallow in its waist-deep water. It is arguably too refreshing at this time of year.
There are times, of course, when swimming is not advised. You might wind up in Long Island Sound during a freshet. My son and I went in once on Christmas Day. I still shiver at the mere thought of it.
The other day, in late October, before performing my daily ablution, I spied a slight turbulence cleaving the smooth surface and meandering downstream. As it came closer I could see a tiny head above the water, trailing a wake caused by its long slender body. It showed no sign of seeing me.
The northern water snake slithered past my watering hole, where I also have seen alarmingly large snapping turtles on occasion. Before I do my shallow dive off the handy rock, I make my presence known.
In doing so this day, I flushed a pair of wood ducks that were not ten yards away, well hidden under the overhanging bank. They squeaked “oo-eek” in harmony as they retreated upstream. The snake that had swum by didn’t worry them. Humans do, however, and with good reason. I try not to take it personally.
Virtually all of creation, including formidable creatures like black bears, flees at the sight, sound or smell of our species. Remember the nursery rhyme about “four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie?” Well, that’s why. They see no profit in getting acquainted.
Species in disturbing numbers are going, and will be going extinct before our grandchildren are grown, and our species appears to be good with that. Places like the place where I swim are disappearing all over the place.
Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, reported in a 2019 Ted Talk that there is 60 percent less wildlife today in North America than there was 40 years ago and that 150 species have gone extinct in the last 100 years. Fully one third of all species in the United States are at risk of extinction, he said.
Scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and elsewhere report that aggregate numbers of birds in North America have declined nearly 30 percent since 1970—meaning there are three million fewer birds today, including such common species as blue jays and robins.
Most days I don’t see anything of note down by the river, other than chickadees or phoebes. But over the decades I have had memorable encounters. Once I was dive-bombed by a red-shouldered hawk, which mistook my splashing about for that of a muskrat.
Our dog Sophie once squared off with a ten-point white-tailed buck in rut. They faced one another from opposite banks. Wisely, Sophie blinked first. Our son caught his first fish in the Eightmile.
Sitting quietly in my riverine chair, which is tucked snuggly under the branches of a hemlock tree, I have been approached by a number of animals unaware of my presence. A wild turkey trotted along the far bank without detecting me, although it did seem nervous.
Gray squirrels have crept very close on several occasions before I felt compelled to announce myself. They flee in a noisy, comedic flurry. You can hunt squirrels in Connecticut from September 1 through December 31. What one does with the harvest, I shudder to think.
Creatures also abound around the river, if not in it. Wood turtles, which, like many species are becoming rarer hereabouts, make their way into the hay field. Coyotes, fox and bobcats lurk about, which probably explains why I haven’t seen a woodchuck in the field for decades. Barred owls like the swampy environs on either side of the Eightmile. The occasional Louisiana waterthrush plies the banks, compulsively bobbing up and down like a feathered seesaw. Kingfishers are a rare treat to see and hear. I’ve spied indigo buntings, redstarts, and all manner of warblers. Woodcock court and mate in the hayfield and nest not far from the river.
The ones you see the least are the ones most remembered. One very cold winter years ago, I came upon a pair of common mergansers, which look anything but common, in search of open water. If they ever returned, I missed them. I saw a black-crowned night heron there just once and was glad I did. Bald eagles fly over periodically. Osprey appear for a spell in the spring right after the state stocks the river with trout.
My former neighbors across the river used to skinny dip where I wallow now. I saw them once and we all retreated hastily to our respective houses. They found a more secluded swimming hole downriver.
I hardly ever see any humans along the Eightmile River these days, not even, as I once did, the odd fishermen now and again. We have become an indoor species, disconnected from the world that nurtures us.
Yes, all seems well down by the river, which, of course, it isn’t.