SARA BETH, DIABLO AND ME
Once again, the creek is quiet. New leaves, bright green, whisper softly as mild ocean breezes set them aflutter. All of the comings and goings, the raucous honkings and quackings of early spring are now just fond memories, put aside, to be called up later on, whenever my heart needs a respite from the cold winds of winter.
The many mallards who graced my snow-covered lawn and then, as they do each spring, left somewhat abruptly for parts and places unknown, have now returned to the creek with their tiny ducklings. Father Goose no longer sits on my dock watching over Mother Goose as she nests across the creek. They are too busy taking care of their long-legged goslings.
As much as I love everyone who flies or hops into my garden, the highlight of my day comes when my old friends, Diablo and his love, Sara Beth, return.
Perhaps, they are so very special to me simply because they are such a challenge. Adult swans are extremely independent - almost haughty, at times - and none more so than Diablo. The older Diablo gets, the more imperious he has become. Whenever he is hungry, he swims in an area of the creek that I can see from my French doors, sticks his long neck over the dock, like a periscope, and stares ... an extremely demanding stare. Even though it is about one hundred fifty feet from my kitchen to the dock, I always feel that he is looking right at me. And, of course, I drop whatever it is that I am doing and run right down to feed him. He's also taught me to be at my duck ramp between five and six o'clock because that's when he brings Sara Beth for dinner. And, if I should dare to be engrossed in something or other and not realize he is waiting for me, my beautiful "devil" wreaks such havoc in the creek with the geese that their extremely loud honking and wild splashing always alert me to his presence
When I first moved here almost ten years ago, I watched in awe as a very young Sara Beth and Diablo glided effortlessly along the surface of the water, barely making a ripple, feathers, so pure, so white, glistening in the sun, glowing under moonlight. At the time, I couldnít imagine a more beautiful or serene sight, but, as I got to know them, reality set in rather quickly for Diablo was anything but serene!
My first encounters with Diablo were a little on the scary side and I was filled with dread every time I climbed aboard our boat. My husband finally got involved luring Diablo away with some food so I could hurry on or off.
Diablo treated Sara Beth just as shabbily! He bit her. He chased her. He constantly bullied her. It was no wonder that Sara Beth was terrified of him too.
Then one day, Sara Beth disappeared. The first few days Diablo didnít seem to miss her at all. But, as the days turned into weeks, he became very melancholy. He refused to eat. He came to me for sympathy and each day, as I sat on the dock gently talking to him, I tried coaxing him to eat. Nothing worked.
Ever the romantic, I was certain that Diablo was going to die of a broken heart! I called my friend Bridget, a wildlife veterinarian, for some advice and I learned that itís not unusual for an "abused" female swan to leave her mate for a while. The weeks turned into a month, then almost two, and still no sign of Sara Beth. Diablo was inconsolable. It broke my heart to see this big, aggressive swan so sad.
Then, out of the blue, Sara Beth returned. At first, she seemed hesitant around Diablo, a little wary, almost waiting for Diablo to bite her. But, he didnít; he seemed to have missed Sara Beth immensely. Once again, it gave me great pleasure to watch them eat at my duck ramp, upending, completely at ease with each other, knowing all was right in their world. Unbelievably, Sara Beth had transformed Diablo into "her kind of swan" - attentive, caring and non-violent! I guess in her ladylike way, she taught him a lesson he wouldnít soon forget. In fact, Iíve yet to see him behave in any other than a gentlemanly manner with Sara Beth - and even with me!
Itís another story, however, with the Canadian geese. Each spring as Sara Beth begins her search for a nesting site, Diablo refuses to allow the geese in the water. He spends literally hours patrolling the creek - his beautiful wings raised in attack mode. The geese have also nested alongside the creek for years, so they know exactly how to stay out of his way. Still, Diablo swimming at top speed and in full armament is a sight to behold!
As Sara Beth and Diablo have come to trust me more, they have allowed me wonderful glimpses into their private lives. I felt privileged to witness their courtship ritual. I cannot adequately describe the beauty and delicacy of their movements, their long graceful necks dipping into the creek, splashing water, first one, then the other, then both, until they ultimately tenderly placed their faces together, arching their necks, forming an actual heart. Truly a sight I shall never forget.
Around Mothersí Day, I carefully watch for Sara Beth and when I see her wings upraised and rounded I know there will be little gray heads sticking out from between them. I love to see her as she gently lowers her body so the cygnets can scramble down into the water. And, yes, sometimes, even she has a baby who holds on for dear life, not wanting to leave the safety of his mommy!
Like all new parents, Sara Beth and Diablo are extremely proud of their cygnets and, each year, as I exclaim over their new little family, Diablo gets up high in the water, puffs up his wings and makes a sort of "job well done" type of snort-snuffle. He always makes me laugh for I truly believe that he likes to be complimented!
Once the babies are all in the water, Sara Beth begins to daintily churn up the bottom of the creek with her webbed feet allowing all the "goodies" to float to the surface so that her babies can dine on the creek's many delicacies. I enjoy watching as she gently teaches them to eat the cracked corn I throw on the duck ramp. At first, the cygnets prefer to eat the natural foods. However, after watching their mom nibble at the cracked corn, they slowly begin to taste it, than enjoy it and finally they clumsily begin "up-ending" for some!
Much to my delight, Sara Beth and Diablo often bring their little family to dine at my waterfront restaurant. They are such superb parents, always allowing their cygnets to eat until they are satiated before they take their turn. And, then, one at a time, Sara Beth or Diablo have their dinner while the other guards their little family.
A few summers back, one of their babies had fishing line wrapped all around him. He was so scared. He frantically swam all over the creek as Sara Beth followed him. Of course, the more he swam, the tighter the fishing line became. I was horrified. I called to the swans to come to my duck ramp ("Swans, bring your baby, IĎll help him") - hoping all the time that none of my neighbors or my husband heard. I was sure they would have me committed! I could not believe my eyes when Sara Beth and Diablo began pushing the baby to me and then up my duck ramp. I had my trusty fishing net and very slowly caught the cygnet and pulled him up. Sara Beth and Diablo were on either side of the ramp intently watching me. I waited for them to hiss at me or get upset, but, they seemed relatively calm (much calmer than I was!). Once the baby was on the dock, I lifted off a portion of the fish net and was able, fortunately, to unravel the fishing line and cut it all off. When I was done, Sara Beth and Diablo calmly walked up the ramp to eat their dinner. The baby, however,just glared at me from the safety of the creek. Ever since, whenever one of their babies is caught in fishing line, Sara Beth and Diablo bring him to the duck ramp and graciously allow me to help.
As fall approaches, Sara Beth sometimes leaves her babies with Diablo while she takes some down time by herself. I usually find her in my sanctuary waiting for me. She likes the special treats that I bring her and, I think, she enjoys not having to share them with anyone. We have developed our own kind of communication. I pull some weeds and she follows me around, making those strange little swan sounds. It's been a long four months and Sara Beth seems exhausted. Now, however, comes the most physically taxing part for her and Diablo - the flying lessons. What an incredible sight to see! One parent, up front, showing the babies how to fly while the other parent comes from behind chasing them and forcing them "up, up and away"! It takes a lot of prompting and nipping from the swan-parent who takes up the rear - I assume it's Diablo - before the babies get the idea and the courage to attempt to fly, but, when at last they do, what fun they have!
By late October, the babies are almost full-grown, but, still mostly gray. It's such a funny sight to watch them climb up the duck ramp. They remind me of "Baby Godzilla's" lumbering up to the dock. They are voracious and devour bowls and bowls of food.
Even though the cygnets are almost as big as adult swans, they still have their baby personalities. They get along with everyone, me, the mallards and, especially, Elizabeth, the goose, who often joins them for dinner. They have yet to learn that they are not only the biggest birds in the creek, but also the most beautiful. They have not yet realized the fact that they are royalty.
With Sara Beth and her teenagers in my sanctuary, there is hardly room for me. Their routines have begun to change. Sara Beth no longer waits for her children to eat first. It's now a free-for-all at dinner- time, with Sara Beth and Diablo winning most of the time.
Sara Beth and Diablo also spend a lot of time apart, each taking their turns watching their offspring and sometimes, they even manage to go off together for a few hours of peace and quiet, content in the knowledge that no predator would dare bother their "kids" now! But, the babies still have their last and most important lesson to learn - they must become independent, able to cope in the wild without their parents' protection. And, Diablo and Sara Beth will now use every tool available to them to make certain that their babies will survive!
In December the time comes for me to sadly begin saying my goodbyes to the babies. There are very few gray feathers left. They are almost all white now and the day is fast approaching when, in nature's scheme of things, they must be on their own. Sara Beth and Diablo will soon see to it that their children "leave the nest". For me, it is very bittersweet. I have taken great pleasure in watching them grow so big in such a relatively short period of time. I have laughed at their silly antics and cried when one of the babies didn't come home. I have come to love them. They have become my friends. And, now, they must follow their instincts. They must court and mate and raise families ... They must follow the ways of the wild ... And, I will tell myself that this is nature's way ... that Sara Beth and Diablo must prepare for next year's babies ... that I will, once again, have so very much to look forward to in the spring...
But first, I must wipe away my tears ...
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