West Caldwell, New Jersey, USA
Birdwatch at the Artists' Colony
Tonight, dinner table talk buzzes about the great blue heron sighted in one of the four ponds enclosed by tall woods and thorny shrubs. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, I'd never seen the bird wild or even in a zoo.
"Where? Where did you spot it—which lake?" I ask successful finders.
"The one just past the composer's cottage" or "as you come around the waterfall" or "the one where the child drowned last century."
I can't interpret the directions, but every day as I walk the hard dirt road through the woods, I scan each small body of water hoping for sight of the famous creature, not sure I'd recognize a great blue heron if I did see one.
After three weeks, on the morning of my return home, I walk my last round, taking deep breaths of the pine-fresh air, my quest nearly forgotten. At the fourth pond, I glance right—and there stands the great bird, wading in shallow water thickly scummed with yellow-green algae. A bird almost my own height, he seems a throwback from the dinosaur era. Feathers grey as sky about to storm, beak yellowish, long, thick, with a dagger point.
The heron lifts stick-thin legs, sets them down again, reaches a serpent-like neck and snaps up a sunfish. His sharp beak pulps the prize enough to be swallowed at one gulp. His eyes, black beads circled in gold and black, just above each side of the beak, scan surrounding woods.
eye to eye
with the heron