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Long Water's calm belies a vibrant avian splendor


LONDON -- Two Canada geese flew in out of the sun over the white Henry Moore arch across the lake and hit the water with their big spatulate feet. Both were as fat as 747s but had none of the heavy grace shown by those ships when they descend.

The spray set all the nearby ducks complaining and spiked the rich silence of Long Water.

The Canada geese arrived here from North America some 300 years ago; and as it is when people settle into a new culture, some will absorb all its wrong qualities. The Canada geese are the lager louts, the yobs, of the bird world.

One might admire them in flight, as a gaggle of honkers moving through the blue-gray sky above the chimney pots of Kensington, a perfect arrowhead formation fleeing the fading moon and frozen stars of night, waking up the neighborhood.

But when you see them waddling around and grubbing seeds you realize they have none of the beauty of motion and stillness of the avian predators that hunt around Long Water and the Serpentine, this lake at the center of the great sea that is London. Nor any of their lethal prowess.

London residents can thank Queen Caroline, wife of George II, for this particular amenity.

It was she who in 1727 ordered the earth dug open to allow a natural spring found here to spread its ample waters.

Why the narrower northern end was called Long Water and the fatter southern part the Serpentine is unclear. But the division between the two isn't.

This is achieved by a graceful stone bridge with five arches. The road that runs over the bridge divides Hyde Park from Kensington Gardens.

The division of the lake responds to the needs of man and beast. The Serpentine is for people. They can sun, swim, lunch, fish, go boating or stroll around the path at its edge.

Long Water is for the birds. Boats and fishermen are kept out. Nor can one approach the edge of the water except in a few locations. The birds know it; they come and stay: cormorant, great crested grebe, tufted duck, goldeneye, herring gulls winging up the tidal Thames from Sheerness and beyond.

Brilliant mute swans coast over the lake like dreadnoughts in magisterial slowness. Muscovy ducks lumber around on shore. Mallards quack.

And everywhere, like apostrophes scattered through a strange arabesque script, are the little white-faced coots, swimming strenuously against the Lilliput waves pushed up by the wind.

Long Water might be better observed just outside the vestibule of spring, when it is pregnant with the expectancy of its own flowering. Today it is flinty, a wintry gray, white and obsidian, a preliminary charcoal sketch of the inevitable sumptuous landscape to come. In short, it holds promise.

In the early morning a white mist hangs in a layer above the surface of the water.

This is the lake's most silent time. And its deadliest.

The bird fell from a great height with a direct and Euclidean straightness. A bullet-like descent it was, not to be seen actually, not by the eye so much as reconstructed by the mind afterward.

This unvarying trajectory ended in a midair explosion of feathers, beak and bone, about 20 feet above the water. Thunk! Another candidate for pigeon heaven, his flesh and blood having nourished the falcon chicks, has his remains dropped somewhere out of a tree.

The falcon is thrillingly effective, but he hunts in his own medium -- the air.

Unlike the gray heron. The heron appears later, after the sun has burned the mist away and he can see into the water. You can watch him from the railed stone bridge, poised on the unleafed branch of a tree dipping down over the water.

He never moves. He achieves a stillness more complete than any living thing should be expected to.

Of that ability of the heron, Barry Lopez, the author of "Arctic Dreams" wrote: "You are able to stand in the river in such a way that the wind makes no sound against you. You arrange yourself so that you cast no shadow and you stop breathing for half an hour. The only sound is the faint movement of your blood. You are quiet enough to hear fish swimming towards you."

Kerplash. The heron is gone, and Long Water is diminished by a single fish.

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