I was dressed for court, not for birding or even being outdoors, but I had my binoculars and a thirst for nature. I entered the park at Bartel-Pritchard Square and passed a small farmstand selling fruit, flowers, and vegetables. I walked fully past it. Then the scent of apples in the sunshine took control of my body and drew me back to the stand, where I purchased an apple as big as my face to enjoy as I strolled in the spring air. At that moment I could not imagine a more romantic afternoon.
I didn't head straight for my usual haunts this time around, because I had a feeling I'd have a lot of time. At this point I was still waiting to hear from my employers; I knew they wanted me to come in, just not what time. I found a mulched path that leads into the woods close to the baseball fields and started up that. I quickly encountered a group of three teenage boys who seemed to be at work building a shelter out of found branches. Their handiwork was quite good. After chatting with them for a few minutes, I continued on the path around the fenced-in area that I soon figured out was the Quaker Cemetery I had always wondered about. Since it's closed to the public, a secret part of the park, I thought maybe the bird activity would be higher than in the well-traveled areas. I crept slowly closer to the fence, keeping my eyes alert for movement and my ears trained for new sounds. It was fairly still and quiet. The trees loomed over me, massive and aged. Even if no leaves filled out the canopy, I expect I'd have a hard time seeing birds simply because of the great height of the treetops. In the lush green carpet of the forest floor inside the fence, I spotted a brown rabbit trying not to be spotted. I also saw a bird with a friendly face, but only for a split second. It was a dull bluish-brown on top, with a complete pair of spectacles, a dull white breast and belly, and a yellow wash from its flanks to its behind. That was the extent of activity in that area. I made my way down a narrow hill-path, my dress pants catching the low branches and my too-big dress shoes cramping my toes with each downhill step.
I enjoyed peering through the fence into the mysterious burial ground. It was beautifully landscaped despite its continually locked gates. It made me think of Ben Weatherstaff and The Secret Garden. That's probably one of my favorite stories of all time. At one point, while lingering near the gate, I noticed some airy seedpods floating down from high above. I traced them back to a branch that was backlit against the sky. This whole time the clouds have been puffy and lovely, but now I notice a distinct darkness settling over the park, the kind that means rain, and soon. I struggled a few minutes to find a better place from which to view the bird disturbing all those seedpods. Eventually I found a magic spot that put the bird against a background of leaves and saw, to my delight, a handsome rose-breasted grosbeak in a red cravat! He was very high, and just as my neck was starting to give out, something impossibly bright demanded my attention considerably lower in the trees. I could not believe the beauty of this bird. It had a grey crown with small white crown stripes, a black mask, yellow chin, breast, and belly, and a black necklace across the yellow, with thick, jagged black stripes descending from it. I didn't have a notebook with me this day, because I've been using it to update my Birder's Journal a little before bed each night, and I keep all that stuff right at my bedside. So I made verbal notes and repeated them to myself several times. Though the urge to throw everything down, whip out my field guide, and look it up was nearly overwhelming, I convinced myself just to let it go for now.
The rain began lightly, giving me, with neither jacket nor umbrella nor the ability to just go home (since I was waiting to hear from work, which is one block from the park), a chance to escape into the well-leafed Ravine. I meandered its paths for a long time, avoiding the steady light rain by instead enjoying the living things around me. When the rain stopped for a few minutes, I went out to the Long Meadow paths to get a view of the pools. Nothing exciting there, but I did hear a strong and musical song in the air, and after a few minutes of following the notes, I found the singer. An orange-yellow Baltimore oriole, singing brazenly from an open branch at the top of a young tree. Another oriole responded with its own song, making a sort of conversation. Then the rain picked up again, and I headed back into the Ravine. Several times that afternoon, I heard a harsh chak repeating and tried to follow it back to a bird, only to discover that the composer of that particularly tuneless song was a chipmunk threatened by my approach. At a waterfall in the Ravine, I saw some brown, thrush-like bird with a light but bold eyebrow. Most likely a waterthrush, but it was too short an encounter to notice more details.
The real delight and torment of my day happened in the north of the Midwood. I saw some movement in the leaf litter by the path - fast, continuous movement. For a moment I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was a duckling! If you know me, or maybe you can tell from my writing, you know I feel and have long felt personally connected to ducks more than any other animal. I was so sad that just that morning I had taken my camera from my backpack, thinking they might not let me take it into the courthouse. I did manage to get a shot with my camera-phone but it's not great. The duckling toddled confidently across the path, despite being hounded by a pair of cardinals, and down the hill, up a log and then into a hollow below the log, all by itself. My first thought was that maybe it was a wood duck just leapt from its nest and its mother would be nearby, but I saw no other ducks nor did I know what to listen for in a wood duck call. I could hear the little guy peeping from its not-very-safe hiding place. I called Chrissy to try to get the number of someone who could help me know whether and how to help this duckling all on its own, away from other ducks and water, in the middle of a forest. After leaving a voicemail for Nora Septoff at Animal Care and Control, I went over to the vale of Cashmere to see if any birders were around who I could ask for help. Nothing. I went back to the duckling's hollow, but it was gone. I scanned the ground in several areas nearby, but could not find the little explorer. I only hope it did not end up as food.
By this point the air had cooled down considerably, and I was chilly in my short sleeves. Also I had eaten that huge apple, a small breakfast, and not much more. I had had enough for the day. I went to Barnes and Noble to warm up. While I was walking, I let my mind wander over the warbler file in my brain, and several names came up, but when I heard 'magnolia', I knew immediately that was the bird I had seen with the impossibly yellow breast and thick, black streaks and that I could stop wondering about it. It was a good feeling later, upon checking the guide, to find that I was correct in my gut-feeling identification.
My life birds today were: rose-breasted grosbeak and magnolia warbler. But I will never forget my first encounter with a duckling in the wild!