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Dr. River

Our second day on the island, I woke up with a sore throat, body aches and chills. I hoped it was just a cold that would soon pass, but it wasn’t. It was mono! Everyone told me the best thing I could do was to rest and drink lots of water.

I’ve mentioned before the healing powers of “Dr. River” and here was my chance to put that thought into action. I choose our bedroom as my recovery room. The first few days were cool; I buried myself beneath a blanket, a quilt, a fluffy comforter and a heavy afghan. Under all those layers, it was sometimes difficult to roll over.

I’m so lucky that we have such a great view. When I sit up in bed, I’m looking out at Murray Isle, the Narrows and Wellesley Island State Park. The foliage on the distant shore was still sparse as I started my convalescence. The bare branches were wearing just a veil of shocking, almost fluorescent green. Interspersed between the spring greens towered spikes of dark green white pines.

Many a morning I woke up to see a trio of mute swans swimming at the entrance of the Narrows. Other mornings I woke to the sound of loons calling to each other. If I looked carefully, I could see the silhouette of their black heads against the blue St. Lawrence. I could really see them when they rose out of the water, flapped their wings and exposed their white breasts. 

Early in the season it was very calm, so many days with no wind. The placid water mirroring the sky and clouds above as well as the trees along the shore. We had a few foggy mornings and I enjoyed watching a finger of fog, lift from the water surface and dissipate into the morning sun.

While I liked looking at the Murray Isle and Wellesley Island shoreline, I’m very lucky to have a large white pine outside my bedroom window. Its many visitors provided me with lots entertainment. One day, I counted three different kinds of woodpeckers : Hairy, Northern Flicker and Pileated.  I paused from my reading to watch the woodpeckers expertly climb the trunk, in a search for bugs, pecking or hammering at the bark here or there before climbing out of sight or flying away. The Hairy was the smallest of the trio and least colorful, with only a tiny red spot on the back of his head. Most woodpeckers are black and white with a dash of red somewhere thrown in.

The Flicker however, sports a dapper brown plumage with black-scalloped accents. When the Flicker flew away, I could see a flash of yellow from its underwings and a bright white flash on its rump. The Pileated Woodpecker is a huge, crow-sized bird, quite showy with its flaming-red crest. Gorgeous to watch when on the tree and quite flashy in flight, with a bright white stripe of feathers on its glossy black wings. I was happy it didn’t find much of interest on the white pine outside my bedroom window. Pileated Woodpeckers have left gaping rectangular holes that ooze sap, for the rest of the season, on our other white pines. And they are loud; not just their raucous calls, but the noise they make while drilling away on a tree. The Hairy pecks, the Flicker knocks and the Pileated chisels—sounding more like a power tool, than a thing of nature.

While the woodpeckers were on the trunk, I spied lots of starlings hopping about the long, soft globes of pine needles, hunting for tiny moths and bugs. In past years I’ve seen nuthatches and chickadees, but not this year. As the days warmed, I heard the sweet lyrical song of a wren, long before I saw her check out the birdhouse.

Besides birds, squirrels—both black and gray—were frequent, busy visitors to my tree. The squirrels are in constant motion, going up and down the tree, sometimes slow, in exploratory mode and sometimes at break-neck speed. They often bring something to munch on. The truncated branch seems to be a favorite perch. One foggy morning, a mother squirrel came down the tree with five little squirrels. They paused on the truncated branch and had a family romp.

But the ongoing daily drama involved the Mergansers and Goldeneyes. Long before I ever came to the island in 1975, the white pine outside my bedroom window lost its top, but one of the branches took its place and a new top has been growing for decades. The break is about ten-feet above my bedroom window and at this break there is an opening to a cavity where the Mergansers and Goldeneyes nest. While I can’t see the opening from my window, I can see the Mergansers as they come in for a landing, with wings spread wide and webbed feet ready to perch. I also see them swoop down out of the nest and land in the water below.

Mergansers have been hanging out on our North Rock, beneath the white pine, since we arrived on the island. For years—five or more—there have been Mergansers nesting in this white pine in the month of May. Occasionally, after the Merganser leaves, a Goldeneye takes up residence. This year there have been a lot of Mergansers hanging around our point. I sometimes see two males (white with dark green heads) and three females (an elegant gray with cinnamon-colored heads) together all at one time. Usually, I don’t see male Mergansers at this time of year at all, only the females. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male Goldeneye.

But this May, the male Merganser was almost always off the North Rock, which is outside our back door. Sometimes the female is with him in the water. Sometimes she’s on the nest. They are generally very unhappy when Gary enters or leaves the cottage or walks by, scolding him with a throaty,  “Gruk! Gruk! Gruk!” One afternoon, the Mergansers were gone.  Soon after the Merganser pair disappeared, a trio of female Goldeneyes showed up on our North Rock. They hung out for a while, then started flying in circles around our point calling out, “Cuk! Cuk! Cuk!”  Very odd, because Goldeneyes are usually very quiet birds, except for their wings. They are fast flyers and their wings make a whistling noise as they fly.

This noisy display went on for some time. I crept out of bed, put a fleece over my nightgown and went to the dock, to watch what was going on. The Goldeneyes made feints toward the white pine, sometimes two at a time. Eventually, one would land on the edge of the hole and stay for only a minute until another Goldeneye would fly in and they’d change places. Finally, one of the females landed and disappeared inside the nesting site. She was there for a while until another female changed places with her.

I was very puzzled by all this activity. Perhaps the Mergansers had hatched-out and left the nest sometime, while I was snoozing and this was the official changing of our timeshare cavity nest from Merganser to Goldeneye. It was the only thing I could think of, so I was surprised when the next morning I heard the familiar hollow, rustling sound of wings, as a bird returned to the nest. Was that a Merganser? It wasn’t the same whistling sound of the Goldeneyes’ wings. I looked out to see the male Merganser below in the water with his striking white body gleaming in the early morning light.  So the Mergansers are still in the nest?

A quick check with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website and I discovered that Goldeneyes are brood parasites, meaning they sometimes lay eggs in the nests of other species. In this case, it was a team of brood parasites.  While the Mergansers are away…the Goldeneyes will take advantage. As I write this, the Mergansers are still on their nest and I’m looking forward to the day I will see them and their mixed brood of fluffy chicks, moving in the water behind them.

Two weeks passed, the trees leafed-out, the temperatures crept up, more boats zipped between Murray and Grenell. Right before Memorial Day, the whirring of bugs started, as sunlight faded from the sky. In the distance, I could see bugs emerging from the line of  tall white pines on Murray like plumes of smoke and I could hear them  above my own white pine.

Being stuck in bed, I was missing the “How was your Winter” time on the island, as islanders met and reconnected after our long season away from each other. But there will be time for that in the coming months. My convalescence gave me the chance to slow down and really soak in the wonders of my island world.  I’m feeling better now, rejuvenated and refreshed by Dr. River.

By Lynn E. McElfresh

Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to “TI Life,” writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. This marks number 92. You can see all of Lynn’s articles here. (We celebrated her #80 in July, 2015!) Lynn helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing and often finds books, places and people to review… This time she makes us stop and see our Island Nature, even when she is not feeling well.  Take care our friend! 

  • My window on

    My window on "Dr. River."

  • Female merganser on North Rock

    Female merganser on North Rock

  • Female merganser in the white pine.

    Female merganser in the white pine.

  • Female Merganser as she enters her tree cavity nest.

    Female Merganser as she enters her tree cavity nest.

  • Female merganser takes a rest after sitting on her nest.

    Female merganser takes a rest after sitting on her nest.

  • Looking forward to seeing mama merganser and her mixed brood of fluffy chicks

    Looking forward to seeing mama merganser and her mixed brood of fluffy chicks

  • At sunset, bugs emerging from the line tall white pines on Murray like plumes of smoke.

    At sunset, bugs emerging from the line tall white pines on Murray like plumes of smoke.


Posted in: Places, Nature
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mike costello
Comment by: mike costello
Left at: 11:20 AM Saturday, June 18, 2016
It would almost be worth it to be sick and recover in a place like you were. I'm guessing that if you weren't sick you'd be in and out doing things and not noticing all that was going on around you. Hard to do sometimes, but we have to just sit back and become a part of nature. Wonderful story.
Deborah Robottom
Comment by: Deborah Robottom
Left at: 7:17 AM Sunday, June 19, 2016
Truly a "stop and smell the roses" few days for you. Lovely article. Glad you are well.