What signifies Autumn to you? Football? The return to school schedules? Besides the waning daylight, for me, the one predictable herald of Autumn is the return of the coots.
Coots are dark grayish or black, duck-like birds with white bills. Their heads bob forward and back as they glide across Rock Lake. Coots aren’t ducks. They’re actually a small crane, or rail. They seem to love the safety of each other and can be seen as large inky puddles on the lake. Occasionally, they will stretch out into long black lines. Then, seemingly for no reason, one of them at the back of the line begins to get uncomfortable and it will start the mad scramble towards the main group, causing the entire line to contract back into the puddle. You can hear the click, click, click of their nails on the water’s surface as they run back into the group’s safety. From a distance, it almost sounds like applause. Once together, they make distinctive noises like cooing or clucking as they mill about.
Have you seen all the lance leaved aquatic plants floating on the lake’s surface with their roots exposed? That’s wild celery and the coots pull it up looking for some kind of tuber at the roots. It looks like the remains of a wild party floating in the bulrushes or just near the train trestle on the Glacial Drumlin Trail. The coots stay all Fall and into the winter freeze. Inevitably, you’ll see a small spot of open water filled with coots surrounded by ice. That’s when the drama begins.
Last year, I watched as two immature bald eagles would harass the coot clump trying to get one to break rank and fly up. The eagles worked the group for a good fifteen minutes: standing on the ice, flying over the coots, landing nearby. Shock tremors would shiver through the coots but none would move. Then a mature eagle flew in and after two tries, snatched a coot. It was hard to watch. The eagles were gone for a while and the coots settled back down. In time, the two immature eagles inevitably return—standing on the ice, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. Sometimes you find yourself cheering for the coots and then sometimes for the eagles. It’s hard finding a meal as winter sets in. Once, seeing my distress, my husband said to me, “Perhaps the coot is getting old and can’t make the migration anymore. Maybe that’s why it’s still sitting in that shrinking spot of open water.” Perhaps. Then one day, the lake freezes solid and the coots are finally gone.
In the meantime, look for them on the lake and listen for their distinctive chatter. It is one of the delightful Autumn rhythms here on our lake.