Thursday, April 28, 2011

Leaping Lizards? Nope, Leaping Rays

It was a glorious mid-April Miami day. The air was soft and warm under a baby-blue sky. My sister was in town for a visit, so I decided to take her to lunch at The Standard hotel, which has an outdoor grill overlooking the inland waterway between Miami Beach and the mainland. We were seated right next to the water, under a yellow umbrella.

While waiting for our order, we watched a group of kids engaged in stand up paddle surfing just off the deck where we sat. Suddenly, only a few feet from one of the paddlers, a large ray leaped out of the water. Although the leap lasted only a second, I noticed that the ray had white spots all over its upper side. I'd never seen anything like it.

A few days ago, while walking along the seawall by my apartment building, I saw a ray with the same striking white spots as the one that had amazed me with its splashy leap a week or so earlier.

The ray was swimming in shallow water at a leisurely pace. I strolled alongside it for quite a while as it meandered inches above the sandy bottom. In addition to its spots, the shape of the ray surprised me—it had a distinct head.

The southern stingrays I had previously seen in those waters didn't have defined heads, but rather a bulge with eyes in the center of their otherwise flat bodies. Here's a picture of a southern stingray, for comparison.

While walking along the seawall, only a few feet from the spotted ray, I recalled an incident I'd heard about a few years ago, when a woman died after a ray leaped onto her boat in the waters off Florida. Having seen one of those spotted rays leap for myself, I knew how suddenly it could happen. I inched away from the seawall. Did I worry that the ray would leap out of the water and land on me? Well, just a little.

When I returned to my apartment, I did some research. I learned that the ray I'd seen was a spotted eagle ray. The spotted eagle apparently leaps out of the water when pursued. It was indeed the type of ray whose leap resulted in a collision with a woman in a boat in 2008, causing her death (the ray also died). The boat was traveling 25 miles per hour at the moment when the ray emerged from the water. There was no sign that the woman was stung by the ray. Rather, her death was caused by the impact. Spotted eagle rays can attain a length of six feet or more from wing tip to wing tip and can weigh as much as five hundred pounds.

A similar boat incident had a happier ending last month, when another spotted eagle ray leaped and wound up on a boat.

In the short time since I saw the spotted eagle ray up close during my walk along the seawall, I've witnessed two more leaping spotted eagles, this time in Biscayne Bay. While they weren't as close to me as the one I saw at The Standard, the rays looked enormous as they erupted from the water with tremendous force. In fact, their leaps were so amazing that I almost forgot to worry about the people sailing nearby on their little sunfishes.

Photographs of rays courtesy of Wikipedia. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

If you receive this blog via email, you will have missed the two YouTube videos embedded here. Just go to the actual blog ( to see them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Duck Divorce

The Muscovy ducks who lived next to my apartment building seemed to have an uncommon fondness for hanging out in the parking lot, something that caused me no end of worry. Hot days would find them resting under the cool shade of a sedan or SUV, never mind the inviting palms and other leafy trees available nearby. Other times, I'd observe them wandering among the cars and vans, seemingly oblivious to the danger of being run over. Of course, they were capable of flight, though they rarely took to the air. But perhaps they felt secure in the knowledge that if vehicular impact seemed imminent, they could simply fly out of harm's way.

Still, I worried, especially when several days passed and I didn't see the smaller, black-headed duck anywhere. Could there have been a car incident? A pressed duck? Wouldn't I have heard about it? The white-headed duck still hung out on the grassy knoll, chomping away at blades of coarse Florida grass with gusto. He seemed not to miss his formerly-constant companion at all.

A week or so passed with no sighting of the smaller duck, whom I had always assumed to be the female. I'd done some Internet research about Muscovy ducks and had read that males are larger and have more caruncles. The white-headed duck certainly seemed to be the male of the pair. And at the moment, he seemed to have been abandoned by his mate.

One afternoon, the white-headed duck discovered some breadcrumbs scattered at the edge of the parking lot. As he began eating them, I suddenly saw the black-headed duck literally run from across the parking lot to share in the breadcrumb bounty. My heart fluttered with joy. The little duck was alive and well!

However, she was apparently not welcome. She joined her former companion and began eating, but every time she got too close to him, he pecked her away. Eventually, she turned and headed back to a planted hedge between two cars. Wanting to understand what was going on but having no clue, I speculated that she was sitting on eggs in a secluded spot within the thick hedge. The following day, I decided to investigate, but found no trace of eggs, nor of a sitting duck.

The mystery deepened. In the late afternoon, I would often notice the white duck perambulating the parking lot. I took to watching him from my apartment terrace, using binoculars at times. Occasionally, the black duck would appear and walk over to her former partner. They might stay together for a moment but then they would separate, like magnets first attracting then repelling one another.

Apparently, there had been a duck divorce. Perhaps now the ducks were arguing over custody of the parking lot. Certainly, neither was around for much of the day. Maybe they were off scouting new real estate.

One afternoon, I took my typical walk, using the path that begins at the parking lot and continues along Biscayne Bay. I had walked perhaps a quarter of a mile, far from where I'd ever seen the ducks, when something caused me to turn my head. To my amazement, the black-headed duck was flying toward me. She landed and sidled up to me. I greeted her with manic expressions of duckie affection. I almost gave into an urge to kneel down and pet her, but contented myself with repeated endearments on the order of "my little duckie-wuckie." After a minute, she waggled her tail, walked a few steps and went flying off over the water in the direction of downtown Miami.

That was the last I saw of either duck for a while. Lately, I occasionally see one or the other, but never both together. It recently occurred to me that there may be a reason no little ducklings were born to the pair this winter—they may not be male and female after all! The white-headed duck, though bigger than the other, is still much smaller than many Muscovies I've seen. Perhaps the pair are both females who stayed together out of a social impulse that seems characteristic of ducks, while waiting for their perfect mates to appear. Since no drakes ever arrived, maybe some duck imperative has now driven them to seek their mates elsewhere.

Whatever the case, my duck separation may not be so much a duck divorce as two BFFs heading off in search of love. At least that's what I like to imagine.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Duck Experiment

My duck experiment didn't involve birds in a lab or even the scientific method. It involved two wild Muscovy ducks who voluntarily resided on the grounds of my Miami apartment complex.

The pair apparently arrived at my Miami doorstep during my summer and fall sojourn in Boston. I first became acquainted with the duck duo when I returned to Miami in early December. By then, they appeared happily ensconced in their daily duck routine.

Mucovies don't swim much, but I would occasionally see them taking a dip in Biscayne Bay. They seemed to find much to enjoy on the grassy knoll between the complex's parking lot and the bay, including chomping on the grass with enthusiasm. They took advantage of water provided for them by an extension to the water fountain located in a little tiki hut adjacent to the parking lot. And they spent many hours preening their feathers. Toward the end of their busy day, I'd often find them resting next to one another on the sea wall overlooking the bay.

As you can see from the photo, Muscovies are not the most beautiful of ducks. They lack the elegant markings of mallards or wood ducks and their red caruncles may be regarded as downright unsightly. Perhaps familiarity breeds affection, though. It certainly has for me. I've come to find the very ungainliness of the Muscovies appealing. And after I initiated my duck experiment, I positively fell in love with them.

I wondered whether the ducks would respond to friendliness even in the absence of food. Other residents fed the ducks breadcrumbs. I would refrain. Instead, every time I saw the ducks, I would greet them effusively. I hypothesized that they would come to recognize and respond to me. Thus, my experiment began.

"Hi duckies," I would call, in that high-pitched voice often used for babies and pets. "Hi ducky, ducky, ducks." Sometimes they'd look up and even waggle their tail feathers. For a long time, however, I couldn't tell whether they recognized me, let alone whether they cared.

After a while, though, the ducks started walking in my direction when I called to them. A neighbor who heard my antic greeting and saw the ducks respond opined that hope springs eternal in the Muscovy duck. "Even if you haven't fed them before, they keep hoping," he declared. While secretly fearing he might be right, I continued to visit and greet the ducks. And eventually I was rewarded—the ducks began to come over to me even before I called to them. I felt sure this was a sign that they recognized me as a friend. But I couldn't be certain.

Then one day a breakthrough occurred. I was walking across the parking lot. Another woman and her young daughter were walking near me at the same time. Suddenly, both ducks made a bee-line for me from across the asphalt, heading toward me at a hilariously rapid web-footed run. I greeted them effusively. They came right up next to me, waggled their tail feathers and lingered for a few moments before heading at a more stately pace back to their grassy knoll. They totally ignored the little girl and her mother, even when the girl called to them. I felt sure they really had recognized and responded to me.

At that moment, the ducks became "my" ducks. I may have lost all scientific objectivity as an experimenter, but I had gained a pair of duck friends.

Tomorrow: Duck Divorce

Sunday, April 24, 2011


In mindfulness meditation, practitioners are taught to focus on the moment—the breath flowing in and out, the here and now. Although I've tried formal meditation practice, I've found that I prefer the meditative state I reach when I'm caught up in the flow of writing or when I sit on my favorite bench overlooking Key Biscayne and am at one with the sky, the sea, and the pelican gliding past.

I have a friend who achieves this glorious sense of absorption when she paints. And E. has variously achieved the state of flow when playing the piano or building his electric car. It's a state of being utterly focused, when time no longer exists.

The word "flow" was first used to describe this state by The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. When I read this book a number of years ago, I found it transformative. I began to think about my life in a new way. Rather than defining my goals in terms of happiness or productivity, I became interested in how I could increase the periods of flow in my life.

Not all of life can be lived in flow, however. There are other ways of being in the moment that are not so pleasant. Pain, even minor pain, can strand you in a never-ending moment. 

The other day, I developed a canker sore on the side of my tongue. It hurt to eat, to speak, to move my tongue in any way. Intellectually, I knew it was temporary and likely to disappear in a day or two. But when it was still there the next morning, I began to feel as if it would never leave me. I focused on the pain and was absorbed by it. I found it hard to carry on a conversation with a friend who called. I imagined my personality would change if I couldn't talk fluidly as before. On the third day, I woke to find the sore had healed. For another day or two, I felt very mindful of the miracle of a pain-free tongue.

However mindfully or flowingly we lead our lives, the moments will inevitably string together to make up years. Mostly, I don't dwell on this, but occasionally something will jolt me into astonished recognition of the time that has passed. Yesterday, I received an invitation to a fortieth wedding anniversary party of a college friend and her husband. Over the years, we've been in sporadic contact, but it's been a while since I've seen them. It occurred to me, though, that I'd attended their wedding almost forty years earlier.

It seems almost incomprehensible to me that I could be old enough to have attended the wedding of a contemporary so long ago. How can I have gotten so old so quickly? Yet I still feel so young. Probably a good thing, especially if it gives me the energy and determination to pursue activities that put me in a timeless state of flow.