A Herondipitous Start to the New Year

Start of the Sligo Creek Trail in Wheaton, Maryland.

Won-ok and I saunter toward the Sligo Creek woods on the first morning of 2020 intending only to capture a few images – mental and photographic – to officially launch this new passion project. Our dream here is to create a multimedia chronicle of and tribute to our beloved creek and the Anacostia River Tributary Trail System.  

We have no idea how wild our day is about to get.

Our feet pick up the trail at its Wheaton origin along Channing Drive behind Arcola Elementary School. A crow wishes us a happy new year from his perch atop a tree, squawking loudly and puffing his chest to make sure that we admire him in all of his brilliance. I test my new, calf-high boots by plopping them into a few inches of water alongside the trail. Grains of dirt swirl around like hot chocolate powder stirring in a mug. The brew lacks only a dollop of whipped cream. My feet stay dry.

We turn right onto the earthen dam that runs past the two stormwater management ponds. Won-ok and I refer to them as “the wedding ponds” as we got married here – our “I do’s” exchanged on the adjoining wire-bound rock wall (gabion wall) that is part of the emergency spillway for the creek. The structure looks to me like the ruins of an ancient amphitheater, one where Nature, undeterred, continues to perform solo acts day and night.

Ms. Ana Costia

Our pulse quickens as we spot a great blue heron that stands silently in the larger pond, stalking a morning meal. She pays us little attention as we click away on our phones and real cameras with telephoto lenses. This view from the dam is usually the best we can ever get of ever-elusive herons, a camera-shy bunch that we have admired and tried, vainly, to photograph well for ages.

Maybe today will be our day, I hope.

We ease down onto the hardened mud and dirt between the ponds and follow her. Her jointy, drinking straw-thin legs plod forward toward the opposite shore: we high-step forward. She stops: we stop.

Time stops.

The great blue heron suddenly heaves herself out of the water with that unmistakable wind-thumping sound of helicopter blades muscling their way around a newly ignited rotor.

She lands but a few seconds later in some tall grass. Still hunting. Still searching.

My own racing heart bangs on my rib cage as we inch closer to a heron than we have ever come before, at least when we are prepared to take pictures. She turns her head sideways — her deep yellow left eye’s radiance lighting up the lifeless, dull brown brush all around her. She glares at something only she can see. Something tasty, perhaps.

The whisper of a light breeze sweeping toward us catches her attention. The great blue heron lifts her head slightly and casts … an eye on Sligo Creek … contemplating the bounty that it holds.

I stand in breathless admiration staring at the bird staring at the creek. Won-ok does, too.

We are, in Thoreau’s words, truly in “contact” with the natural world. Nature is a part of us, and we are a part of it.

Goosebumps shoot across my arms.

The old reporter in me kicks in. I want to find out everything there is to know about great blue herons and this great blue heron. How old is she? The nicks and scrapes on her beak, some brownish stains on her neck, a few ruffled feathers, and those knowing yellow eyes – they all convey that she has been around long enough to have seen some things, to have survived some things.

Later I will learn that she is a statistical abnormality: nearly 70 percent of birds like her die within their first year.

I wonder if her nest is nearby, if she has family, and if she’s the same heron we see at the Wheaton Regional Park lake a short flight away.

A grander question echoes inside my mind, too.

What else is out here?

I ease away from Won-ok and our hungry friend, hoping to connect with them both later. I also hope that at least one of the hundreds of shots Won-ok is taking will give us the photograph we have sought for so long. The interior design of our suburban house is part mountain lodge, part nature center, and much of it is adorned with our own wildlife photographs. One wall pays homage to all things heron with paintings, wood sculptures, glass figurines and pen-and-ink drawings. All that’s missing is a real-world portrait that we ourselves have produced.

I sidestep down into a little gully, my boots splashing into a few inches of water. Several startled  Sparrows flutter up and away, chirping great surprise. Sorry, guys.

I don’t know if my apology reaches them as I’m not sure if I said it out loud or only thought it to them in my head. I do both frequently when I’m out in the woods with wildlife.

My head remains dazed by an electrifying, surreal sensory overload much like what I feel when I touch down in a foreign country for the first time. A stranger in what should be a familiar land, I didn’t know this spot existed before today because I have never ventured off the paved Sligo Creek Trail or the dam. I am not a hundred yards from either and not more than a thousand from my own front door, yet here I stand, a wild new world revealing itself to my blue eyes.

The beauty around me fills my lungs.

I inhale deeply, hold my breath for a few seconds and release it. I repeat the relaxation technique as I record the next of our “60 Seconds of Solitude” videos that will also be a part of this creative endeavor. The goal is to encourage screen-stuck and harried viewers to pause, allow the great outdoors to come indoors and relax. Even if for only a minute. There is good in this.

The misshapen, runny egg yolk sun climbs above the tree line. Does the sun always look this way at this time of year or have I just never noticed this, either? The sunbeams’ sharp angles invite me to play with my shadow. I accept. Short guys like me relish opportunities to tower over everyone and everything else.

Every squishy step I take brings me a new vision.

My little gully, with walls rising no more than five feet at their highest, is a mountainous river gorge in miniature. Put an action figure toy here and the scale would equal the wildest rivers of Alaska. I look down through the clear water scaling my feet and see trident-shaped impressions in the sand.

Heron tracks!

I follow them around a few bends in the creek. Our blue heron has either been pacing back and forth since sunrise or been on her hunting expedition with friends. Tracks sunk more deeply in the sand and mud report that deer have ambled by for a drink of water, too. I’m not sure what the raccoons were up to: no one ever is.

Won-ok suddenly appears above me: she and our heron are taking five.

My wife rolls tape, to use an anachronistic term, and I deliver a few monologues capturing more of the spirit of this day and of the multimedia site we’re bringing to life. My words unfurl with great focus; my attention to my surroundings does not. I take one step too far and sink way above boot-level into a chilly pool. The delightfully painful shock sends my voice several octaves higher and signals that it’s time for the videos and our adventure to end.

Or not.

We step quickly toward the paved path as I need to get home and dry as fast as possible. Mightier helicopter blades whirl out of the brush from our right — the heron zooms right past our eyes! Won-ok flings her camera lens toward the blue streak and glues her finger to the shutter.

The magnificent blue bird slaloms through the trees and disappears.

Won-ok and I again stand frozen and breathless.

Several more seconds pass.

We at last exhale and … giggle and high-five and hug all at the same time.

The trio of reactions continues as we dash home and push open the front door. I rip off my boots and pour out the water. Won-ok darts through the monitor on her camera. “Look!” she shouts, pointing to tack sharp photos of our blue heron. “We got some!”

I smile at the empty spot on our dining room wall where the best one is destined to go. I give our friend a name, too. Ana, as in Ms. Ana Costia.

A clock catches my attention. It is only ten minutes past noon on January 1 and I have already had an awesome new year.

I shake my head in disbelief as one more thought trickles across my mind.

I know that 2020 is going to get even better because now are three of us – Ana, Won-ok and I – who will keep an eye on Sligo Creek and contemplate the bounty that it holds.

Drop by our Poet’s Lounge to check out five poems about this sweet old great blue heron!

See more photos of Ana!


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