On a Friday night in May at Ell Pond Park, the crowds have dissipated just around dusk, but a crowd of strangers is still gathered, drawn to the natural wonder in our own backyard. Snippets of eavesdropped conversation among strangers:
"This is like watching TV."
"Yeah, but you wouldn't be here if 'Dancing with the Stars' hadn't just finished. And 'American Idol' isn't on tonight."
"This is like 'American Nature.'"
Since the floods in March, through April and into May, crowds of people have been gathering quietly to wait and watch for the hatching of baby swans (cygnets) belonging to swans 'Mel' (the male) and 'Rose' (the female), who apparently decided that the shore of Ell Pond adjacent to Main Street would be an appropriate place to build a nest where Rose could lay her eggs. Christy Bolduc and her family have been walking down every night after dinner to see the progress.
"We've been coming since before the babies were born," Bolduc said. "We've watched the building of the nest, the laying of the eggs, then the hatching. And now, they're swimming! It's been exciting."
According to Diane Kurkjian, the city's Animal Control Officer, the news has spread without any formal announcements.
"We tried to keep it quiet, at first," Kurkjian said. "The eggs take 36 days to hatch. We wanted to protect the swans and give them privacy."
But somehow the word got out, and as it spread, large groups of people, on warm spring nights, sometimes up to 25-30 at a time, have come down to Ell Pond Park on Main Street, a scenic little section right across from Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. A yellow caution tape blocks the entrance to a ramp leading right down to the water, and the nest.
Kurkjian explains the tape. "These swans are very territorial. That's why we put up the yellow tape. So far, people have been respectful."
Only two of the seven eggs hatched.
"There's no reason to take the eggs if they don't hatch," Kurkjian reported, who said that early on, she talked to Mass. Wildlife, which advised the city to remove any unhatched eggs. "But we didn't, obviously. We'll let nature take its course. There are enough natural predators in Melrose: coyotes, foxes, raccoons, and more. Otherwise, we (humans) are the predators, the invasive species."
The swans are considered an invasive species, not being native to the area. Kurkjian explained that, years ago, someone brought them over from Europe. The swans came to the east coast and eventually, Mel and Rose settled here in Melrose.
"Because they're territorial, you won't see as many Canadian geese on the pond or on the grass," Kurkjian said. "The swans chase the geese away." (And she further explained that fewer geese means, well, less you-know-what on your shoes, so walking and picnicking on the lawn near the Victorian gazebo is much more enjoyable these days.)
The swans and their babies are a sight to see, but exercise caution.
"Leave them alone," Kurkjian warned. "Stand back. Don't approach or try to touch them. And please don't feed them! With any wildlife, we humans make it more dangerous by feeding them. They lose their fear of people. That doesn't do them any good."
How long will the cygnets stay on Ell Pond? And where do they go in the winter?
"We have no idea where they go in the winter. They'll stay on Ell Pond all summer, and into the fall," Kurkjian responded. "The babies will stay here as long as the adults are here on the pond. This pair (of adults) will keep nesting in the same place, but we're not sure whether the babies will find a new spot or what."
Meanwhile, it's still a sight to see; the swans are so beautiful, so graceful. On that Friday night at dusk, another conversation between a grandmother and her toddler granddaughter:
"Oh, it looks like only two of the eggs are going to hatch."
"Because only two got fertilized."
"Nana, what's 'fertilized' mean?"
"Um, well," the older woman turned around to the crowd, trying to hide her smile, her eyebrows raised. Turning back with a composed face to her granddaughter, she grabbed the small hand.
"Time to go."
The anonymous crowd chuckled silently. Another special moment, shared among strangers.
The cygnets still need names — what's your suggestion? Check out our cygnet-naming contest.