A Winter to Remember

TwoSwansDeepWinter2019janNothing stops time from ticking relentlessly by, and the winter has finally given way to spring. At Nahant Marsh, it was a long, hard, cold one this time around. The bitterest cold did not arrive early on in the season, indeed, it appeared that a relatively warm winter might be in store. But by mid-January, temperatures had plunged and snow had piled up, and it became a winter to remember.

ColdMorningDownByTheRiver2019janThe subzero cold, once here, stayed day after day, week upon week. Snowstorms blew through every few days, adding more snow to the thick layer that blanketed the area. Windchill warnings were issued, records were set, and people bundled up—or did not go out at all if they could avoid it. The wild things, however, went about their business as best they could. Only the humans did not leave barefoot prints in the snow.

ThreeSwans&Eagle2019febAnd wild things there were, too. As in winters past, birds could be frequently seen around the deep frozen marsh. There were, as ever, bald eagles wintering in the area. Many common goldeneyes and mergansers dived for food on the dwindling open-water areas of the river, and rested on the ice expanding on its surface. To my delight, I spotted trumpeter swans more often than I ever have any winter season before.

ThreeSwans2019febWinter seems to be the season that I see  swans if I am lucky enough to see them at all. Is it the harshness of the winter that nudges them to a location that I might have a chance to see them? I can’t really be sure, but there are not many trumpeter swans, and it is a treat to spot them. Perhaps, like the bald eagles, trumpeter swans will make a resilient comeback after having once been extirpated from this area.

SundogSunrise280Bridge2019janThis memorable winter was full of surprising beauty, too. Sundogs appeared frequently. Big, brilliant arcs of light requiring bitter cold air aloft to appear at all. The patches of open water on the river smoked in the super-cold and coated nearby surfaces in thick frost. Diamond dust glittered weightless in the air—only present because it was so profoundly cold. It was worth bundling up and venturing out.

People said the winter seemed never-ending. Perhaps it did seem so at the time. But, that of course was not the case. The flood waters of springtime began to rise even before the winter moved on, and continued to rise as rains came to melt the snow and ice. The water remains high even now. Spring snowstorms came, and the snowpack upriver continues to melt and feed the flood. The flood will eventually pass, as nothing ever stays the same. Some times though, like this winter to remember, do linger in the mind long after they are gone.

SunriseShines IntoSnowyFloodedForest2019mar

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A Crane Marsh

SandhillCranePairAtFirstLightNM2018marAt Nahant Marsh, another year is passing. The lingering winter gave way to spring’s rush of bird travelers and a speedy return to green. The heat of summer arrived before summer itself. The marsh is once again full of a new generation of wetland creatures. Wood duck babies are out of the nest, as are hooded mergansers, canada geese and many others. The fecundity of the marsh is very encouraging.

SandhillCrane&Reflection4NM2018marAnother very encouraging thing is that a pair of sandhill cranes have returned to Nahant Marsh each season now since at least 2011. They return reliably and can be seen regularly. And so Nahant Marsh regains its status as a crane marsh. I assume that at one time this place must have harbored cranes—they are such ancient creatures, present long before any people arrived to perturb the balance. There were no cranes here when I first came to this marsh. I don’t know how long the marsh had been bereft of cranes, but Aldo Leopold thought perhaps he was witnessing the last of them when he wrote the Marshland Elegy in 1937.

SandhillCraneWalksAcrossTheBeaverPondNM2018marNahant Marsh was empty of cranes when it opened as a nature preserve and education center in 2000. Prior to this, it was an EPA Superfund Cleanup site due to heavy lead contamination from decades as a shooting range. Dead geese were found here, but no cranes. It may be that no cranes have been in this marsh since they were nearly extirpated from this area a century ago.

SandhillCraneLiftsOffThePondNM2018marNahant Marsh is not a remote wilderness. It is a relatively small parcel surrounded by city. The shooting club that inadvertently poisoned the land also prevented the expanding city from building there, thus preserving an island of habitat. The urban environment is quite close, present, and noisy. And yet Nahant offers enough to bring and keep a pair of sandhill cranes. The resiliency this illustrates is encouraging.


Cranes have returned to take up residence, and seem not at all put off by the nearby city. It now seems likely that they will stay. As time goes on, it becomes clear that with a little care and a little leaving it alone, creatures once threatened can make it through the eye of the needle. They can come back and thrive. Sandhill cranes could not have survived the incredible sweep of millennia without being resilient and adaptable. It is wonderful that they are still here, and are going about their business, and can continue to mark the tick of that geological clock with the clangor of their annual return.

I continue to visit Nahant Marsh often, and to photograph the transient images of beauty that pass by. Occasionally I will post a few—but with a day job, extra projects, and incursions into far-off Edens as well as my close-to-home Eden, posting takes a back seat. Front and center is simply to be present on the planet, here and now, in in this place of peculiar distinction—a crane marsh.


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