Sunday, September 6, 2009

Happy Trails to a vanishing path

9/1/09. The trail through the marshes, my trail, is disappearing. I speak of it possessively because as far as I can tell no on else ever uses it. That’s why it’s disappearing. The marsh grasses and their suite of accompanying weeds spilling over from a small wood have grown up and over the path, and no one is helping me tramp them back down. This was once an official path; the metal posts are still there and so are the wooden squares which once held plastic-coated information plaques about the plants and the salt marsh habitat. No information now; soon no path.
I haven’t walked here myself in nearly a month. It’s been a wet summer, and the overgrowth trend I’ve been noticing for a year or two has simply accelerated. A month is long enough to make me lose my way on the narrow track in the places where the tall thick-stemmed weeds are thickest – a slender, ground-level clearing my feet used to find automatically. Is this a tipping point?
The salt marsh has proved a remarkably good place to see plants and winged creatures, especially in a densely populated near a busy road (Quincy Shore Drive) and a city center. You hear the traffic in places; you hear the metallic squeak of the swings from the schoolyard on the other side of the broad, flat apron of tidal marsh where the egrets hang out – in pleasingly dense populations of their own. The big wading birds don’t seem to mind being this close to what we optimistically call civilization.
Still, sticky trekking or not, this was my best session for seeing water birds since the spring migration. Stunning white egrets, to start with. I’ve seen them fishing in the estuarial stream that flows inland from the marsh this summer, but seldom near my path, and not nearly in the numbers of the past two summers, when I found clusters of the young lounging away the afternoons in a backwater while dad (or mom) was out hunting. Today a white body glides into a channel just as I round the first bend in the trail loop. I miss seeing the head, but it’s an egret. I find another in classic wading bird posture in the shallow end of Black Creek. It knows I’m watching but I’m too far away to bother it. Its long slender, reptilian body is stock still, waiting for a fish to mistake it for a reed and become dinner. I see the profiles of a half dozen other fishing birds along the edge of a shallow channel toward the school, in the area where broods of egrets summered last year, but as I get closer their color does not lighten. Dark bodies: cormorants. One lifts off and flies toward the center of the creek. As I turn into the homestretch – the marsh path is roughly elliptical, like a race track – I discover another white egret stock still in fishing posture. Then, almost out of sight of the creek, I take a final look back and see what I haven’t seen in a long time: big, dark, rail thin neck and beak, stunningly long neck and body – a great blue heron. I wonder if he’s passing through; a seasonal visitor. Is it passing time already?
A word on plants. Autumn is a great time for wildflowers in the marsh, especially along the somewhat more official, wider foot path that leads to the Union Sailors cemetery. Many flowers have already bloomed and passed their season along this summer stretch: beach roses, Queen Anne’s lace, even golden rod (though more of these along the overgrown loop path), and a large bushy shrub leaving behind mounds of spherical burrs. Wild asters are still to come. What's blooming now is a tall plant with fern-like leaves and flower heads consisting of tightly packed mustard-colored buttons; found the name of this plant last year, forget it now. The seasons are marching quickly this year. Soon I will be looking for the color in the underbrush and the blood red fruits on the scrub trees, hard as oversized marbles.

9/3. Two days later I go back to the marsh again, only this time I have my binoculars. And I scare the birds away before I can focus the big black glasses on them.
It’s a sensational season-slicing September day. Warm in a patch of sun-heated air, then cool a moment later when you turn a corner and get washed by cool, salty air. I'm just beginning my marsh trail and meditating on this sparkling seasonal ambience when a squawking erupts somewhere close and something white and large passes through my peripheral vision. First white egret of the day. It is past me before I realize it and when I raise the glasses and try to focus on a fast-flying bird – a lot harder than watching with your own eyes – the second egret blasts past me, much closer than the first. I put the glasses down and watch it fly. I’ve never heard them flush and scream a warning like this. Educating the young? Let me show you what to do, Junior, when you get a guy snooping around with binoculars. I’m not used to producing this kind of excitement in wading birds.
A turn in the course later, a great blue heron pops out from the plain of short marsh grass, once more to my utter surprise, and flies (also squawking) inland toward Black Creek. I get a binocular focus on its flight and enjoy the end of his flight when he lands in a tree line on the cove’s other side, admiring the elegant crook of the neck when he settles down on a topmost branch. Closer to the cove, I see a line of birds in exactly the same spot where I saw them two days ago. Cormorants, one two three. Just behind them, an egret stands in wading position in the shallow edge of the cove. I put the glass on the egret and only then see what I had not observed with naked eye, a dark brown heron directly behind it, body aligned in the same attitude. Glassing back across the cove a thin, reed-like presence turns out to be another egret, which the eye alone would not have detected. Rounding the turn I scan with the glasses and find two more wading birds, an egret and another brown heron, close together as spouses. Something unnatural going on?
Once more in the homestretch, bushwhacking through some tall marsh weeds, I flush an excitable brown heron that comes bursting out of what appears the edge of the woods – what was it doing in there? It circles over the lower marsh grass to pick up lift, then curves back over the woods and is gone from sight.
Oh, and one other charismatic fauna: a guitar player. Playing by himself in the Union Sailors Cemetery. He’s gone there to work on his repertoire; to sing as loudly as he wants without worrying about anyone hearing. He doesn’t notice my presence, until my trail loops back from the creek and cuts so close to the wrought iron fence around the cemetery that he can’t help hearing me trample the brush. He exclaims; then shuts up and sings no more. Poor guy; didn’t mean to spoil his solitude. He put a lot of time and effort into one song in particular. The song, I’m sorry to report, was “Margaritaville.”