Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Garden of the Birds: Great Moments for Great Egrets

The Great Egret is a big and striking bird. We see them in Quincy, in coastal marshes and along the estuarial Furnace Brook quite often. But I am often surprised when others walk by without even turning a head in their direction. Since we don't try to kill these birds for food, and I'm happy we don't, and since we don't kill them any more for their beautiful white plumage to ornament our hats -- a really good idea to put an end to that -- the bird population has recovered to the point where I know I'm going to see some every year.             
           Still I'm surprised that large, dominant two-legged animals can be so blase about seeing them. They just don't see the point of looking at these amazing living creatures, which makes me sad.
            When they walk or ride past a heron-sized wading bird standing stock-still in a shallow stream, long serpentine neck pulled in tight, or fully extended just above the water surface like the prow of some ancient fishing vessel, what do they think they're seeing? An albino seagull?
            Don't take my word for this splash of wonder in a largely urban landscape. Here's the description provided by the Cornell Orinthology lab:
            "The elegant Great Egret is a dazzling sight in many a North American wetland. Slightly smaller and more svelte than a Great Blue Heron, these are still large birds with impressive wingspans. They hunt in classic heron fashion, standing immobile or wading through wetlands to capture fish with a deadly jab of their yellow bill."
            Serious hunters, they are elegant fliers as well.
            With those long wings they don't need to flap around a lot to stay aloft. They thrust hard with those tripartite wings to get off the ground, but they're able to use the slightest updraft or current to glide. Smaller birds work harder to get aloft where the drafts are stronger. Heron-family birds float off as if the sky itself were a magnet.
            Some years they're more plentiful in Quincy's marshes and shorelines than others. Generally I see a few on the broad salt marsh neighboring Wollaston Beach. The harbor waters flow underneath busy Shoreline Drive and fill the channels of the marsh as the tide comes in, draining them as the tide goes out. The egrets need water shallow enough to wade in, standing motionless on those stick legs to wait for prey. But deep enough so the tiny sea creatures they feed on will be moving up stream or down.
            A decade ago, when we fist moved into this part of Quincy close to Wollaston Beach, I occasionally came upon broods of egrets in my walks on the marsh path. I'm told they nest in trees, and no trees are available in the marsh. But judging from their size, most of the birds I saw were first-year waders; yearlings. They clung together, close to their elder out in the thick salt grass (Spartina patens) patches far from the dry footpaths, far beyond where the human beings of our era are likely to pursue. We don't stomp through muddy-channeled marshes even at lowest tide to get our hands on wading birds. I'll bet our ancestors did; probably hunted their eggs too.
            Those extended family groups stopped taking breaks in the Wollaston marsh, at least on the days I made my scouting expeditions. I began taking photos of egrets and other birds I did see; three or four egrets at once would be high-density days.
            This year, for whatever reason, I've found egrets in larger numbers on a couple of occasions again. Last week as I rounded the point in my usual marsh-trail progress, I saw the first few birds, lifting their wings and gliding from point A to point B among the flattened grasses.
            Standing a few feet in front of me an even rare site: a couple of fellow human explorers. I can go a whole year of visits on this path without encountering anybody else on it, so this was a remarkable day. The woman of the pair asked me if I had been on this path before; presumably they hadn't.
            "Oh, yes."
            She started to speak, but I interrupted. "Look, egrets!"
            They looked, I think. But no response.
            "They're very big birds. They're waders. They migrate here from the South."
            Kind of nothing to say.
            I don't know, maybe it was my civic duty to share anything more I knew of this subject with the newbies and worker harder to stimulate interest, but I wasn't getting a lot back. I wished them a good day and kept going around the point, and my view opened on the first dense -- 'flock' doesn't seem right; encampment is more like it -- of Great Egrets taking a migration break in our salt marsh.
            Wow. Lots of egrets. Out comes the camera.
            I've worried that my avidity for taking their picture has discouraged large bird presence from our marsh. They'd rather not be the objects of my attention. They'll remember my intrusion and choose another marsh next time. So I try not to take too many photos of the same bird, or group.
            But this was ridiculous.         
            I looked back at the couple of first-time visitors, but I couldn't tell if the bird show had attracted their attention. Then I saw the strangest thing I've ever seen in this place. A diminutive man (man's clothing at least) emerged from somewhere, walked determinedly past me, perhaps not noticing me, wearing a cloth hat and cape-like smock and carrying a camera; strode right into the marsh (where I was sure no two-legs would ever venture); and headed toward the Egret camp-in. Recovering from my surprise, I walked along my path to get a better view of his intentions, and opened a panorama on a second large multi-generational grouping of egrets.
            I've seen more big birds in one place before. But that place was Florida. We're lucky to have egrets and herons and hawks up here. They're summer people. We're fortunate to still possess the habitats that attract them for breeding season. Little coastal wildernesses. Micro-habitats that we somehow haven't polluted, drained, or otherwise over-used in our dense domination of the planet beyond their value for other lifeforms.
            I looked back at the first group of birds and spotted the little man in earth-toned clothes setting up a tripod, shielded by some tall grass (Spartina alterniflora) presumably to take some shots of the egrets at rest or play or work in our marsh.  
            So this is who we are. Some of us will march straight into the mud to get a good photo. Others, by far the majority, won't even know there's anything worth seeing.   
            People, this is your planet. It's all the other species's planet as well. Get to know your neighbors.