“It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” Or at least that’s what our little whooper 4-13, aka. “Mack the Knife” will tell you. But in his case, there is a slight twist… for we’re not talking unrequited love here. No. It’s more a case of “Until death do us part” followed by, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” without a whole lot time in between. And when the old boy stands in the front of the church and says, ”I Do” when he really means, “Goodbye,” the whole story really does get a little Alfred Hitchcockian. You see, Mack is on his third bride in less than twelve months. His first two are no longer among the living… which is why Colleen rechristened him, the “Groom of Doom.” And it does explain why, when Mack and 10-15 walked down the aisle this spring at White River Marsh, instead of playing “Here Comes the Bride,” the organist played, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Last Thursday morning was dark and cold as most Thursday mornings are these days. A low layer of thick overcast blanketed the countryside, thwarting all hope of a warming morning light. We followed our headlights south to Princeton to check the sloughs for sandhill cranes or “sandies” with the thought that they might participate in leading our chicks south now that Henry and Johnny have flown the coop. The winds would be out of the north all day and birds would almost certainly be moving south. On the way, we checked for the beeps of the chicks, the Royal Couple, and Mack and 10-15. All were present and accounted for, though still hidden in the darkness of their roosting sites.
We parked the tracking van and hiked through the woods to the slough, hoping to see it still occupied by a large flock of sandies. No such luck. Only a couple stragglers remained along with a pile of Canada geese and a lone seagull, painted into the picture as if for comic effect. The Atlantic Ocean must be close by, we thought. Or perhaps a garbage dump! Or perhaps the Fates were messing with our heads again… and it was a Laughing Gull.
Back in the van, the tracking receiver dutifully scanned through the bird frequencies as we began our return north. Suddenly it came alive with the sound Mack and 10-15 nearing us, in flight. They haven’t come this far south all season! They were MIGRATING! Like a dog chasing a stick, we turned around and instinctually commenced chase, following them in hot pursuit as the excitement grew and the speedometer climbed. That was until reality set in and we recognized the folly of our endeavor. Mack and 10-15 were not our priority. The chicks were. With luck, we would see them again at St Marks in couple of weeks anyway. Besides, my imagination suddenly flashed the sight of us being pulled over for speeding by the local sheriff and my response, “Well Officer, I was just chasing the Beeps”!
As we headed back north, I thought about good old 4-13, aka. Mack the Knife. His name was the result of an incident which occurred when he was a little chick back at Patuxent. One morning, he appeared for roll call with a bad bruise on his upper beak, probably the result with an encounter with the pen the previous night. As he grew, his top beak did not grow as fast as his bottom beak, which stuck out sharp as a stiletto. His pecks soon became near lethal so that by the end of the day, you felt like you had been playing goalie for the local dart team.
This accidental Darwinistic adaptation was certainly not to our benefit (note the shark bruises on my arms and back) but it may have been to his, because he is, as it turned out, the only surviving whooper of the Ultralight Class of 2013. Perhaps his motto is, “Walk softly and carry a sharp… beak” And it makes us wonder if intentionally bruising the upper beak of every whooper chick should become mandatory protocol. But as Confucius was fond of saying, “Who knows.”
So, let’s give this a closer look. Mack returned from St Marks last year with 7-14. They enjoyed a great season together and the relationship looked as though it was made in heaven. Then she disappeared. Meanwhile, Henry was showing off the very first love of his life, 8-14, and just in time too. We were beginning to wonder about the old boy. It was nubile bliss until the newly “separated” Mack flew in and snaked Henry’s bride for his own. “Bummer”! After all, Mack had been single for all of about… five minutes!
Mack and 8-14 spent their honeymoon at St Marks while Henry and Peanut watched from the nearby marsh. You just had to wonder what was going through their minds. But as married couples well know, honeymoons are not forever. Mack and 8-14 left on migration and not long thereafter we were driving to Alabama to recover the bride’s remains while Mack continued back to White River Marsh for a “new beginning.” He no doubt landed, fluffed himself up to advantage and called out over the reawakening spring country side, “Next”! This time, it was 10-15 that answered the call. Soon, Mack had himself a new mate…. and a new name — the “Groom of Doom” thanks to Colleen.
And so Thursday morning, we thought of the “lovely newlyweds” as their beeps faded into the southern distance. However, the beeps were soon replaced by the muffled, far away sound of a church organ, eerily surging towards us as sure as an incoming tide, until it infected our Invisible Friend in the back seat with a hum that quickly morphed into raucous, ear-shattering song. My foot instinctively floored the accelerator as we leaned forward hard against the windshield in a desperate effort to escape the malicious onslaught. But escape was not to be. And soon the insidious melody body snatched us into involuntary song, which began in our toes and crawled alien-like up our bodies until to poured out our mouths in Vesuvian eruption,
“So long, it’s been good to know you…….”