Monday, September 23, 2013

Flying Through Autumn

           Two great white egrets came gliding across the flat of the salt marsh just as I cam around the bend of the park's so-called 'nature walk' -- as if there were any other sort of walk you could take there -- and the larger one, flying backup in the two-bird formation, looked at me and groaned.
            I don't pretend to any special knowledge of the vocalizations of great white egrets, but I know when I'm being unwelcomed. Oh god, the egret said to himself, 'there's a guy down there.' Maybe he said, 'that guy.' Or, 'that guy again? I saw enough of him last year.'

            His call was a kind of scold, a honk of despair, a sort of dull warning. As if he knew the biped below posed no real danger, but as a great egret of principle -- and from the need to train the smaller (possibly younger) not so great egret flying before of the protocols for taking evasive action when encountering even a predictable large biped within bowshot -- he reluctantly gave the warning call, or grunt, groan or growl. And bent his flight in a long graceful curve away from my position, adding sufficient distance on this new tack within a few seconds.

            It was a perfect day, a perfect hour in a perfect afternoon, in the midst of a superior week of cool, dry September weather. It was the second time in three days I had gone to the marsh. This day you could smell the salt from the seashore. The sun was warm on your head and shoulders, but the wind that blew the sea smell ashore keep the air cool around your legs.

            Since I'd seen no birds to speak of the previous visit, I brought my small, lightweight binoculars on the chance of seeing them this day. Reverse logic. Now with the two egrets wheeling away but not, as I feared, out of sight, I fumbled with the binoculars case, slowed by removing the lens guards (since I was totally unprepared to actually use them), and by the time I had the glasses ready the egrets were flying S-curves from one end of the horizon to the other and turning back toward my direct line of sight. Since using field glasses takes practice, I had to keep putting the glasses down to find the birds with the naked eye, and then trying to guess where they'd be when I lifted the glasses to my eyes. After several long moments of not-seeing, the larger of the pair flew into my 'ken' just as he was framing himself against the line of trees that separates the salt marsh from the shoreline drive. He disappeared in an instant. 

            So, I thought, concluding that the big birds had apparently changed course and direction, I hope I haven't ruined your plans for the afternoon. I continued walking, hoping to see them come back to the marsh.

            I saw a different water bird fly rather low overhead. A cormorant, I decided. And a few minutes later, a large broad-winged bird flew against the trees in another park just beyond the marsh. With the glasses I caught the white tips of the wings before it settled among the trees. Hawk?

            Then a couple of large birds flew closer to me across the marsh, and even with the glasses, and even with finally getting the glass locked on them and working the focus, I could not identify them. And only then did I finally register the large man-made structure far enough off  the path in the marsh that no one on foot could walk to it (that was the point) and which I had somehow failed to pay attention to before. My brain apparently assimilating it into the category of human junk that sometimes shows up in city parks. But the two intersecting metal bars of the frame were meant to hold something, and that something was pretty clearly an osprey house, a kind of wooden box on a platform.

            A few minutes later I saw a small signpost announcing the construction of a new osprey nest in Quincy and the assertion that ospreys have been observed flying in the salt marsh. Did they just built this thing the day before? Or have I been suffering from some inexplicable blind spot. No matter, it's here now.  

            My apologies to egrets I bothered that afternoon, to he herons and hawks I have spied on for years. But the prospect of annoying some local osprey by peering relentlessly upward on my marshland excursions cheers me no end. 

(Note: top photo, a great egret flying above the salt marsh in Quincy.
Second photo, an osprey, taken earlier this year in St. Augustine, Florida.)