The decaying pilings looked as though they ought to have herons on them. This was mainly due to their color. The lower portions of the pilings were wet and dark, while the bits above the high tide were bleached by the sun to a pale grey shade that looked almost bluish. Like a heron.
I kept pointing my binoculars at them and twiddling the focus wheel, but they always resolved into eroded wooden snags instead of roosting birds.
The heron had been seen twice more since my first attempt, but I’d been largely thwarted in attempts to make a second visit by work, and then I’d made the (successful, but now haunting) decision to pursue the Curlew Sandpiper at Jamaica Bay instead. The Curlew Sandpiper hails from Asia, but it makes its way to the U.S. somewhat more frequently than the Reef-Heron. It even merits a picture in Peterson’s Eastern Birds. Still, this was a particularly nice specimen, in full breeding plumage, and certainly a jewel for my life list, and… well, hell, there was no point in rehashing the decision. I’d made it for reasons that seemed good at the time. And now, for reasons that also seemed good at the time, I was standing in the weeds of Coney Island Creek again. The sun was sort of starting to think about going down, and the flies were definitely more than thinking about starting to bite. I slapped and scratched and focused on another piling and twiddled the focus wheel and saw more eroded wood.
The angle of the sun made looking into the sunken barges even more difficult than usual, so I began to make my way around the trail to see if I could spot them from the other side. This was not such a long trail, but the day even on the ebb was still hot, and the bugs were going like motherfuckers, and the slightly decrepit demeanor of the environs combined with my recent readings to make a bubbling worry-sauce in my brain pan.
Part of it was that I’d just read Jon Evans’s Dark Places. Part of it was the more directly relevant fact that a few days prior, a couple from West Virginia (I assume the folks that the Inimitable Todd and I met on the first trip, but who knows how many crazy birders there are in WV?) had seen a group of young men with air rifles firing at egrets in the creek, and had chased them and photographed them and called the cops.
Now, I am pretty hard on heron-shooting – it is clearly illegal, reckless, dangerous to bystanders and harmful to the environment. It indicates a basic destructive impulse. At the same time, I couldn’t help but fear that with the cop-calling and the chasing of young men engaged in what people might arguably see as Tom Sawyer-like all-American recreation, and the traipsing through the territories of homeless people trying to build homes, and the being around at any daylight hour looking at things that didn’t normally get looked at in a lurking-type manner, the birdwatchers might have become disruptive to regular park users, and might indeed be unwelcome. I don’t like feeling unwelcome, but I like the idea of guys with guns, even air guns, finding me unwelcome even less. And the sun didn’t seem like it was going to stop crawling down the sky.
So I was a little antsy.
The other side of the creek was heavy with greenery, both trees and patches of knee-high weedy annuals that one could wade into just far enough to realize how much the bugs really, really liked them and how nice a habitat they would make for rats before one decided to turn around and get the hell out. This was nice habitat for the robins and starlings and the Indigo Bunting that I spotted, but it didn’t make for good viewing.
Finally, I found a beaten-down trail between two trees. Putting to the back of my mind the question of who had beaten down this clearly unauthorized trail and for what purpose, I followed it toward the shore.
I passed an open space of indeterminate use, scrambled down some rocks, and and found myself facing the backs of the barges. From this vantage point I could see straight down into their ruined hulls, where the heron was , according to observers, given to lurk. I looked for lurkings. A survival of loose rope swung back and forth in the breeze and confused me for a minute before I made out what it was.
Two Great Egrets flew in and landed on a piling. A duck circled beneath them. Schools of small silver fish began leaping out of the water for some purpose, perhaps to feed on the flying insects that were now abounding everywhere, not just in the immediate vicinity of my tasty blood. The egrets eyed the fish. Surely, this was a place that a heron could not bear not to be. But the sun was getting lower.
A cormorant flew overhead, and I tried to make out if there were any interesting gulls out over the open water. (One of the great things about birding is that you come to find out that there are such things as interesting gulls.) No luck. A handful of terns flew by, doing their extremely capable ternly aerobatics that make them almost impossible for me to identify on the wing.
Suddenly, something moved on the barge just in front of me. It was clearly a heron… not white… I twiddled the focus knob frantically.
Slowly, a grayish bird came into view. Not blue-gray, sadly, but black-gray. It assumed the hunched posture characteristic of a night-heron, and moved into profile, and I saw the dark face and white cheek-patch of the Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
Now, both Night-Heron species had been my particular arch-enemies for several years, evading my gaze until a trip to Jamaica Bay last summer when a brief glimpse of a flying Black-crowned broke the curse. Since then, I’d seen Black-crowned Night Herons in three boroughs, and caught sight of at least one seemingly every time I went birding near fresh water. In Prospect Park they dripped from the trees of the Lullwater Trail. In Central Park, groups of five or more paraded around in my full view, as if to say, ‘ha! You thought we were hard.’
But the Yellow-crowned had continued to elude me. Until just now. I stared at it in deep satisfaction for as long as my wrists would hold the binoculars steady.
Now the light was gone slant-wise. I knew that I should leave. But I didn’t want to stop looking at the Yellow-crowned, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I left, the heron would fly in behind my back. I looked for another few minutes, slapping my leg in a futile attempt to retain a few drops of blood for myself, and then I turned for home.
Breaking News: As I write this, I get word that the Western Reef-Heron has been spotted this morning at Great Kills Park in Staten Island. Will the bird who wasn’t there be there when I show up? Stay tuned.