Morning of the night herons

Saturday morning the East Austin Street Retriever and I headed out into the woods behind the factories right at daybreak, a little after 6 a.m. She’s been pretty down since her companion died, missing meals and moping around. The first couple of days after the event, we walked on the street where we had walked with him the morning of the accident, and she would stop at every spot he had marked. And the days since then have been crazy busy for me, putting in long hours inside the screen. But Thursday’s full moon beckoned, and while it was already waning Saturday morning, it was intensely bright, dropping down in the southern sky below Jupiter and Saturn. When I called Lupe to head to the back gate, she looked instantly revived, and the truth is we both needed it.

This is the time of year when the silkworms wrap their crazy webs out of big chunks of the trees wherever you look, and I had been thinking about how they evidence a certain kind of persistent natural abundance that is reassuring. I saw one such tree right where the trail meets the river. And just as I stopped to admire it, I heard the rustle and bolt of some animal we had spooked in the brush right behind it, in that dip over the first bank where the trash collects after the big floods. A wild dog, it appeared, but it’s hard to say, as all I saw is shadow. Ghost dog, perhaps.

I heard laughter as we stepped out onto the rocky terrain of the old gravel dredge across from Secret Beach. A couple was cuddling in the middle of the river channel. Maybe they’d been out there all night, or just came there at daybreak after being out all night. We gave them space, sneaking along behind the foliage out of sight. Only later did I get to thinking about how easy it is to sneak up on people out in nature, especially when you have learned some of the ways to get close to animals.

The trick to walking along the river in early summer, when there have been good rains and the foliage is thick wherever you go, is to walk in the river, which means accepting that your pants are going to get wet and your boots will likely fill with water. And when we crossed the first lagoon, we followed the red damselflies and found a little campsite at the edge of the preserve, marked with the sort of totem that would do well in a found footage horror movie. We kept walking undeterred, looking for life.

These black-bellied whistling ducks hang out here every summer, nesting in hollow trees around East Austin. I see them often in the pecans and hackberrys above the Air Supply depot and the old Machine Works, often cavorting on telephone poles. And while their name emphasizes the black on their bottoms, its the orange of their beaks and breasts that gets your attention. That and the way they seem to prefer standing to the paddling that characterizes every other species of duck on the river.

Further down, the river widens and shallows just above the old bridge that has recently expanded into a twelve-lane tollway platform. The highway parallels the flightpath of the airport, and in the early mornings you often see big cargo jets lumbering in on final, but it was quiet Saturday. Right by one of our preferred crossings, there’s this old flotsam chunk of dead tree that’s been embedded in the deep part of the channel for a few years now, and the birds often perch there. Usually just one solitary bird, but Saturday morning there were three juvenile green herons sharing the long branch, well-camouflaged by the muddied colors that precede the bright display of the adults.

Teen birds are remarkably tolerant of human gazes, and human nearness. You wonder when they learn to keep a safer distance from us. How they learn to fear us. Do their parents teach them? Or do we, with our predatory energy?

They also remind you how teens of all species manage to look goofy, trying to find grace during the struggle to figure out how to grow into one’s own body.

This one looked a little more adult, but still short of full maturity.

Green herons are one of those birds I usually see hunting alone, so it was interesting to note that they spend their teenage years in gangs. And then big bird showed up to join them—another juvenile, either a great blue or a night heron.

It tried hard to look hard-ass as it flew up. But when it alighted on another nearby deadfall, it looked even goofier than its squat green cousins.

We enjoyed their company for a while, and they tolerated ours. I learned to recognize the green herons’ call for the first time, and realized how often I hear it from a distance.

Lupe and I walked on, wading through the fast water to the side channel below the ruins of the old gaging station, which looked to be adorned with some colorful new tags, maybe from that gang of teen herons. A dude in flip flops and shorts walked from where we were going, and we told him about the birds in the direction he was headed. And then we saw the birds he had just passed, as they slow-mo strutted through the swamp, right next to a couple of abandoned truck tires and one rusting oil drum half submerged in the muck.

We saw at least three of these yellow-crowned night herons on Saturday’s wander, a bird it’s rare to see ever, especially that far into the beginnings of the day. All the herons have intense eyes, but I had never seen just how big the night herons’ are, no doubt to better be able to hunt in the water by night. There were more green herons there, too, and a few snowy egrets, including one whose feathers seemed to be dripping off.

I had been thinking the bird life on the river had diminished somewhat in the past few years, as development pressure has started to show its face in the cranes you can see above the treeline to the west, and the Tesla factory under construction to the east. The abundance this weekend indicated the habitat remains healthy, especially to see all those young ones out, and the species that are less common. A lot more charismatic than the silkworms I had been ready to settle for. All in the run-down stretch of part-time wetland underneath the overpass, where even as I looked down as we waded with the birds, I saw the telltale rainbow of hydrocarbons in the water. A habitat that succeeds mostly through human inattention and neglect.

We walked on, and came upon a different kind of development—a pair of recently constructed wigwams down on the muddy shelf above the channel, under the canopy of the big cottonwoods that are currently raining their snowy seeds all over the woods. I wondered if the dude we had passed came from there. And if he had any friends.

When we got to the bridge, the river was extra deep, still channeled into a narrow cut by the highway crews, who are now turning the involuntary park in the Department of Transportation right of way into an official park, complete with interpretive plaques and little workout stations. Ten years ago you would sometimes see dudes changing their oil right there at the water’s edge, and the first time we put our canoe in there twenty years ago, my then-first grader son almost flunked the survival test by picking up a used needle. There’s still an old pipeline exposed in the channel, and Lupe and I used that as our tightrope to cross the deep.

We found the last of the night herons back behind the big camp at the edge of the preserve, where someone had their clothes out to dry on a branch. It looked young, too, more from its gawky proportions than its colors.

The bathing couple was still there when we returned, 90 minutes after we had set out, drying themselves as the wood ducks watched. They still didn’t see us. And then I wondered if it was the moon that had summoned that morning.

Have a great week. And with luck, this time next week I will have been able to get out with the eel watcher, in the limestone shallows below the spillway of the dam.