The Young Know What They Are

I returned to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary an hour before dusk. I went on the Bayview trail with my parents that afternoon. I had a good open view of some shorebirds on the mudflats, but the heatwaves and the backlighting obscured the birds. Unsatisfied, I suggested we returned in the evening to watch the sunset instead of walking on a beach again. I wanted to go on the boardwalk trail, to go near the end where the marsh was. My father ended up going with me.

At 7 in the evening, the visitor’s center had been closed for two hours. Tourists were long gone, at dinner. The pitch pine forest blocked the orange sunlight, covering the entrance area was in shadows. Except for one man just crossing the gate to leave, my father and I were the only people there. I simply heard common songbirds (cardinal, chickadee, catbird, goldfinch).

I like the solitude in a natural setting while birding. I don’t mind passersby – other birders, walkers, joggers, or dog walkers (the dogs better be on leash!) – but I am more in control of my relationship to the surroundings. I can easily modulate my presence. I am the only human that needs to quiet their step, consciously. The more I make it seem like I have always been a part of the setting, the less the birds hide. They continue their activities without feeling the need to adjust their own presences.

My father, a quiet person, also appreciates the quiet of nature.

The air cooled a little more. We went on the part of the path that went through a patch of oak trees. The songbirds eventually quieted down to silence. I got a little too eager for action at one point. I thought I saw a strange bird tapping at a sycamore tree. It was just a piece of bark randomly flapping (there was no breeze as far as I could tell).

A little further up, I saw a little side trail to the left. My parents and I visited the Wellfeet Bay Sanctuary three years previously when we last vacationed in Cape Cod. We walked the entire boardwalk trail then. On the way, we went on this little trail and briefly stopped at the bird blind that overlooks the large pond.

This was the summer before I got into birdwatching, just a few months before. I was like non-birders: Who stands around to look at birds like that? Uh, boring?

I didn’t pause when I saw the little trail. Remembering it and the memories associated with it, I headed down. I was a birder this time. One must visit a bird blind.

I approached the blind – a small gray wooden hut with two rectangular windows – as gingerly as I could, taking care not to creak the floorboard steps. I kept my gaze through the windows as I entered. Immediately, I saw two juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons. I hissed at my father, who was waiting on the path, to get in and look.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons look radically different from the adults, who have crisply clean plumage: gray-black wings and back, off-white underside. Juveniles are brown and white with spotted wings and a heavily streaked breast. They also lack the lone white plume that extends from the back of the head.

Not even fifteen feet away, the two night-herons were perched on an upright fallen  branch that split into a short fork. One on the left fork, the other on the right fork. I didn’t have to use my binoculars. I lent them to my father.

The sunset was now more orange, lighting the shallow water brightly and surrounding the night-herons in a glow. Bugs tapped the water around them, making numerous small short-lived ripples. On either side of them, by the water’s edge, were reeds and tall grasses.

Almost fully grown, they had the stocky, hunched composure of an adult. I didn’t have to guess whether they heard and saw me approach. The one of the left had its back to the blind. After a short moment, it craned its head as if to see what new commotion as going on in the blind. Then once more it moved, turning its whole body to face its sibling. Meanwhile, the one of the right remained motionless. I couldn’t tell if they were staring at me (with one eye each locked on the blind), staring into space, or staring at each other. Still, they looked aware. Incredibly aware. Very, very still. They had a mature air, enigmatically poised.

I normally perceive adult birds like this. Juveniles birds were awkward. Teenagers awkwardly in the middle of puberty. Juvenile herons especially look awkward because of their Doc Brown-like white down feathers. And in general, young birds often don’t recognize that humans are another potential predator they need to be cautious around. So they get a little too close for their own good. Luckily, it’s not for their own good if the humans are birders.

For these two young night-herons to have more dignity and grace than even an adult Great Blue Heron was surprising. I couldn’t help but turn around a few times and excitedly whisper to my father what he was looking at. At this point I would be truly projecting human qualities on them: each time I did move and whisper, I felt that they disapproved of me a little more, and would get closer to flying away from us.

The pond darkened. I didn’t keep track of how long we stayed in the blind. At some point we turned our attention to the Belted Kingfisher perched on a stump in the middle of pond. It was the first time my father saw a kingfisher and I wanted him to get a good look at it. Still, we kept most of our attention on the night-herons. My excitement for the moment didn’t dwindle even a little, but it seemed that we were spending too much time in the blind. We may have already stressed the night-herons enough (Or did we? Were they already so motionless before my father and I went into the blind? Did they not care about our presence? Were they aware but kept going with their business of resting (meditating??) regardless?), and I told my father we should move on. An amateur photographer without a good camera, he rued for a series of lost pictures. Nevertheless, later at the motel, he expressed how happy he was to accompany me, as he almost skipped out.

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