The couple from West Virginia had been there three times. Todd, who was a bit skeptical about getting up at six and taking the train across Brooklyn to look for this bird, settled into the regard that one has for the impressively mad when they told us how, three times, they’d driven through the night to be here at Coney Island Creek at dawn, standing on a narrow spit of land that terminated in the skeleton of a wooden barge and scanning the water for the heron. They hadn’t seen it yet.
At least if we did see it it would be easy to recognize. The Western Reef-Heron, a native of western Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia, follows the trends that make most of the heron/egret clan iconic. It has a distinctive long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked profile, and it stands around in open water poking at fish and letting humans get long looks. The combo of blue-gray color scheme, white throat patch, and bright yellow feet easily separated it from the impressive roster of other herons that frequent the creek – Great and Snowy Egrets are pure white, the Little Blue Heron’s feet and throat are dark, the Green Heron is tiny and greenish and rust, and the Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons are small sullen birds that have a perpetually hunched posture and a scowl, probably because they’ve been relegated to a semi-nocturnal lifestyle by their larger and more aggressive cousins. We birdwatchers were lucky in this regard. The Western Reef-Heron also comes in a white color morph that, if seen, could easily be taken by a careless birder for an egret and overlooked.
We were lucky too that it had been spotted at all. Drier-Offerman/Calvert Vaux Park is not a heavily birded area. The Western Reef-Heron has only been seen six times on the North American continent. Speculation persists, though, that the Brooklyn bird is the same individual as the heron seen in New Hampshire and Maine and Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Obviously it didn’t teleport from point to point. It just wasn’t seen until it was seen by somebody who knew what they were looking at.
Once that somebody saw it, of course, trekking to this unlikely park commenced; hence the West Virginians. Todd and I came through the back of a Home Depot parking lot, past a bunch of locked gates with helpful signs saying that the park was open from sunrise to sunset (at least they didn’t twinkle in the sun; that would have been just insulting.) Once we finally found an open gate, we were able to make our way to the water’s edge. Half-burned pilings stuck out of the water in a way that was weirdly reminiscent of the drowned trees at Montezuma; here and there someone had found it more economical to abandon a rotting barge than haul it out. Small trees grew out of the barges, and rats got back in touch with nature among them.
I spotted something just edging out of the water, moving in-shore; for some reason my mind flashed on sting rays, although I felt no real alarm. A closer look proved that it was a horseshoe crab. People always describe these as the size of a dinner plate, but this one was only about the size of a salad plate. It was, however, alive and trundling along in the water rather than dead and upside-down on the beach, and in this regard it was remarkably different than every other horseshoe crab that I had ever seen. I watched in fascination for a few seconds before moving on.
Todd and I made our way down the path to an openish area; no luck, though we did spot a lovely, if out-of-the-way, community garden with waist-high corn and squash plants that looked like they might go out for the football team. Then we looped up and around the ball fields, along the spur of creek where our target was most often seen. Not much luck there either, except for a number of Black-crowned Night Herons and the shadow of what looked like an abandoned car – I didn’t investigate too closely. Then we spotted the other couple out on the spit by the sunken barge, and doubled back to see if they were having any luck.
We hopped down some rocks, penguin-style, and joined the West Virginians just above the waves. The were an older man and woman, outdoorsy, and the man sported the most impressive graying ponytail I’ve seen outside of Ithaca, NY. Once we’d mutually ascertained that none of us had seen the heron, we exchanged introductions and our new acquaintances shared the sad story of their three fruitless drives. Todd, as I said, looked dubious, but gave them a pizza-place recommendation in the spirit of camaraderie nevertheless.
I mentioned the community garden above, and that’s when I learned that it was actually nothing of the sort; rather, we had come near to trespassing on the homestead of a woman who lived a bit further up among the trees, who had taken to growing her own food in the park. She had a tame pigeon, too. I had overlooked it before, as one does with pigeons, but it was there and it was giving us the stink-eye. When we stepped toward it, it scuttled away but didn’t even raise its wings.
We looked out over the water. Plenty of egrets. No Western Reef-Heron. There wasn’t much to say.
A flock of small waders flew by our spit. I pulled them up in binoculars. They were dark chestnut above, white below, with black rings on their chests – Semipalmated Plovers, not a terribly uncommon species, but a life bird for me. I resolved to appreciate what was there.
I could have stayed for hours, but we had responsibilities to attend to, what with work and all. But the saga was just beginning.