It’s 6 p.m. and time to start our favorite ritual – watching wildlife come alive as the sun sets behind the stormwater runoff retention ponds near the Kemp Mill Shopping Center. A fuzzy brown face — we think it’s a face — blurs across the left sides of our peripheral vision.
Won-ok and I stare at each other, asking without words if we just saw the same thing. Something we’ve never seen at our ponds. She races to set up her camera gear while I scan the ponds with my binoculars.
We turn to our Canada goose friends hoping they might identify what we think we saw, and perhaps even point it out to us. They’ve got other things on their minds, like dealing with nests washed away by recent flooding. Our “Mama Goose 2021,” who boldly built her nest and laid her eggs on a tree stump, is now on Stump Island. There is no more dry ground to easily access by hopping down to grab food and material for her nest.
Won-ok and I continue scanning. Searching.
We detect two blackish-brown spots sliding across the water but can’t tell if they’re just more sticks. Their size and shape don’t register with anything in the photo libraries of our brains.
Fifteen minutes pass.
The blackish-brown blurs start to move. We realize we might be looking at feet. And there’s something connected to the feet! Something with a fuzzy brown face and big ol’ belly – a stomach that looks like a Boogie Board turned on its side. It’s a large rodent, but not a Rodent of Unusual Size (you’re welcome, fellow The Princess Bride fans). The creature turns its big belly down toward the water, raises its body for a split second, and dives down into the larger of the ponds.
It happens so quickly that we’re not able to get a lens — camera or binocular — trained on it. Is it a beaver? Woodchuck? We can’t catch a glimpse of the rodent’s posterior. We don’t know if it has a flat pancake of a tail like a beaver or a bushy tail like a woodchuck. If it’s that deep in the water and swimming like it lives there, it must be a beaver.
There’s no time to go to instant replay on a camera monitor because we need to keep our eyes on the prize. Another ten minutes pass. The fuzzy brown face surfaces. Only the face, but at least we can now see it clearly. My, what big whiskers it has. Wait, big whiskers? That’s more like a sea or river otter, but there’s no sea or river near here. Won-ok fires away on her shutter; I stand there trying to save what I see in my long-term memory.
The large rodent with a fuzzy brown face and undetermined tail slips below the surface again. We remain standing, hoping that it will give us a National Geographic moment – that it will rise right up out of the water and make an Olympic dive that we capture on film. Extra degree of difficulty points awarded if it comes up with a fish in its mouth.
Thirty minutes go by.
Our belted kingfisher friend makes a brief appearance. Canada geese get into a few spats up and down the 200 or so feet we’re observing. One goose lifts off from the bank in pursuit of another – sticking out its tongue in mid-flight and trying to nip at the other’s tail feathers. Whether that’s combat or foreplay, I am not expert enough to know. A red-winged blackbird bids a quick hello. A few mallards do a fly-by. I spot a solitary raven or a crow over my head; I still can’t tell the difference. My expert birder friends tell me one is bigger than the other, which does me little good as I’ve never seen one of each stand next to each other in a lineup.
A bizarre sound takes our attention from the sky and yanks it down to the water right in front of us. It’s a croaking sound, a booming one, with a jagged cadence. An image of a frog with a zipper in its throat appears in my mind but we can’t see anything. The sound booms louder and closer, making my knees buckle for a second. I start to wonder if some mythological sea creature is about to spring out of the water and scarf us down in one gulp. Childhood terror of watching the Jaws in 1975 washes over me. The zipper frog is going to eat me, my wife and all of our gear. There won’t be anything left of us, and no one will know what happened!
I catch one of the geese staring at me while I’m in mid-panic. He’s probably just staring at the shrubbery around me and wondering if it tastes good but I interpret the gesture as him telling me to calm down. It’s just a frog or some other native creature with no interest in eating me for dinner. I think the goose is actually a little embarrassed to be seen with me. I calm down.
A little more than 75 minutes have passed since we arrived on site. We haven’t moved the entire time. No additional Kodak or memory card moment with a swimming rodent unfolds.
But that’s okay. We’ve made yet another new friend on Sligo Creek — a beaver — and we haven’t been eaten by a giant zipper frog.