Won-ok and I exit our house at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning in January, my wife loaded with camera gear and me with my reporter’s notebook in my pocket and – for the first time – binoculars around my neck. Too much happens out there for me to be able to see it with naked eyes and remember it all later.
The “out there” today is the retention ponds area on the Wheaton end of the Sligo Creek Trail. I cross my fingers that the previous night’s rain might attract more company to the ponds and to us. Maybe our favorite great blue heron, Ms. Ana Costia, will be there, too.
We spot two young male deer in the field between the trail and the intersection of Easecrest Drive and Ladd Street. Each buck has but one spiky little antler. I begin to wonder how they ended up like that but the question is cut off by a gaggle of Canada geese honking their heads off from deeper in the woods. (I’ve always called them “Canadian geese” instead of “Canada geese” but accept now that I was wrong.) We step gingerly past the Nicholas Drive pedestrian bridge and find a half dozen or more of them sitting up ahead.
They don’t notice us.
Won-ok circles them clockwise; I ease around from the opposite direction. Easy!, I tell myself. One twig-snapping step and they’ll be gone.
I press the record video button on my phone. Right on cue, the geese cut loose on what jazz musicians might call a jam session but what initially strikes this untrained wildlife observer as a heated argument. The group is divided in half, several on the left and the others on the right. They blow their horns and joust at each other with their beaks. The longer they go and the louder the decibel level rises, though, the more harmonious the notes grow: I’m witnessing a goose concert in the wild.
In my head, at least.
The geese still don’t seem to be on the same page. The group on the right can’t take the rift anymore and lifts off in a huff. The ground-dwellers shout rebuttals of “Hey, come back here while we’re talking to you!” but they fall on deaf … auriculars. Anger promptly turns to panic. “Wait! Don’t leave us!” They launch themselves into hot pursuit.
I congratulate myself for my genius: This has to be the greatest piece of nature sound anyone has ever recorded!
Reality waits all of five seconds before dashing my dreams of winning an amateur naturalist of the year award. I accidentally recorded the concert in slow motion: the footage is useless.
Won-ok continues toward the larger of the two ponds. I go splashing through a five-foot-high gully and blow another photo opp: two more geese fly up and away before I even see them. I really do have to start paying closer attention to every step I take.
Foot by slower-moving foot, I trudge through the brush and ease my way toward the edge of the big pond – side-stepping a field full of blurry objects without noticing that I’m doing it. They are of sight, out of mind – for now.
Won-ok rescued the concert I accidentally recorded in slow motion.
I decide to stop moving, sit down on my butt and wait for whatever might come my way. Some of the same goose musicians from a moment ago are in the water. They glance at me, still disinterested, and drift forward two in front of three. They’re playing a zone defense, I surmise. Their frenemies huddle on my side of the shore.
Dogs and their people pass by on the paved trail. A man wearing a bright blue shirt and even brighter green shorts power walks by while favoring a limp in his left knee. No one turns their heads to glimpse the nature show.
The sun rises high enough to cast my shadow fifteen feet in front of me. I aim my camera at the waddling geese and follow my shadow as it follows them.
Cold mud cakes my derriere when I sit back down. My face is heating up, though. It’s a shocking 61 degrees. A gentle breeze is blowing across the water. This January day feels more like one of the Mediterranean afternoons of my youth than it does winter in Maryland. I even feel younger at the moment.
A bolt of golden brown canine fur darts across my line of sight along the paved trail. A man with a leash wrapped around his hand ambles by ten seconds later. He pays no regard to the Montgomery County leash law or the fact that it exists for good reasons. Many great dogs have graced my life but, as friendly as they were to all humans and most critters, I respected leash laws. Not like this jerk, who doesn’t care if his dog accidentally terrifies some elderly couple or a defenseless child walking on the trail. Neither they nor other dogs have any way of knowing if the four-legged creature charging at them is friendly. I wish the long arm of the law was there to slap the jerk with the $100 fine that comes with the first violation or the $500 hit if he already has one. My blood boils until …
Raccoon tracks just beyond my resting feet draw my attention back to the pond in front of me. One of the geese dunks her head in the water and comes up flinging her mane like a supermodel in a shampoo commercial. The rest of the Canadian immigrants nibble heavily into their chests, either trying to clean themselves or retrieve remnants of long-ago spilled snacks. The pecking grows more frantic as they shove their chests and stomachs around like blobs of human fat.
The supermodel has a neck complex: she’s using her beak to pound down scraggly feathers. Another goose is also enchanted with his neck. He bends it down and then up again in the shape of a “U”.
Don’t they have any bones or muscles in those things?
Whoosh! Some Blue Angel-wannabe bird dives down in front of me, hits her air brakes inches above the big pond, shoots straight across the middle of it and then does a lap around it so fast that I don’t even have time to think about reaching for a camera.
She repeats the stunt a minute later and soars back to the top of the still-standing dead tree trunk at the edge of the ponds. I aim my bins – what I have learned the cool kids call binoculars – at her. She has a navy blueish head and a black bill. I scribble down every detail I can see in my field notebook as I have been doing all morning. Her head is shaped like a king’s crown. Burnt orange bursts of color streak across her underbelly.
I figure I have enough detail in my head and in my notes to identify her later but my focus on him lingers until … a name surfaces from the deep recesses of my mind: kingfisher. I will find out when I get home that I’m right. She’s a belted kingfisher, to be exact. And this kind of aerobatics is exactly what kingfishers do – diving, snagging prey with their bills and gulping it down whole from treetops. They nest in burrows they dig out of a pond, stream, riverbank or even a ditch.
My kingfisher leaps off his tree a third time, again comes up empty, and returns to his perch. Poor thing.
A pair of young mallards that strike me as a newlywed couple on honeymoon pay the stunt bird no mind. A ray of sun lights up the drake’s flashy green head and construction cone orange legs. He seems to almost take his bride by her webbed foot as he leads her into the water for a light swim. Chivalry is not dead, at least in the animal kingdom.
I look up to see a hawk soaring overhead. I wonder what its perspective is on this scene, both visual and philosophical. What does it make of the wildlife and humans encamped at the ponds? The hawk glides out of sight, leaving the sky open for an airplane to cross the horizon and leave a vapor trail in its wake. What does the plane think about all this?
Back on Earth, all the blurry images I’ve been blocking out suddenly snap into focus: trash litters the floodplain like landmines.
Red Bull, Budweiser and coconut juice cans. Fritos and Oreo bags. McDonald’s cups. We are poisoning our bodies and the world around us.
Water bottles are everywhere. I crawl through the mud for maybe twenty minutes photographing the pollution from its point of view. Plastic pen caps, Cesar dog food containers and Styrofoam packing peanuts. I wonder what happened to the four-inch-thick plastic Captain America toy shield I saw previously — if it’s on its way toward becoming a fossil that will still scar the ponds a century from now. I slither forward – my hands, forearms, elbows, thighs, knees, and feet now all drenched in mud. Another fifteen minutes pass. I am not like a snake, I think. I am a snake.
I stand up and wade twelve inches deep into a pool between the ponds to shoot more pollution. The water is yellowish-brown and nasty and swirling around my legs like a slow-moving hurricane on a TV news weather map. Huge glossy half-dome bubbles with green gunk on their corneas stare up at me like alligator eyes. A Pepsi can floats by. My Atlanta-native, Coca-Cola-loving righteous indignation kick in: I scoff at the carelessness of whoever drank that inferior beverage until …
A Coke can drifts in from nowhere and clinks the Pepsi can. A toast to filth, I guess.
Water bottles scream at me from every direction; I photograph their ugliness.
One particular bottle still has water in it. Whether it is half full or half empty on this day, I cannot judge. When will the landmines explode?
Three giggling girls ditch their scooters and stuffed animals and come racing down from the earthen dam above the ponds. There’s a white girl with a long, braided ponytail and tie-dye shirt and two Latinas. They’re maybe 10 or 11 years old. Ms. Tie Dye is entirely at home in the environment.
“Let’s go take pictures!” she chirps.
Her friends are more squeamish, which reaches full pitch when they take off running back up the dam after spotting one its bitsy spider. Ms. Tie Dye chases them, grabs them by the hands and pulls them back down to go exploring. No parents helicoptering nearby. They’re free to play the way kids deserve to play.
Won-ok and I remain invisible to the trio until Ms. Tie Dye skips by me, notices me photographing the pollution, pauses, and says, “That’s so sad.”
She darts off with her friends and disappears over the dam.
The belted kingfisher makes one final, fruitless dive and leaves, too. I’ve yet to see any bird actually catch something in these retention ponds. Does the water even hold anything for them to eat, or is it a mirage? I suspect that the kingfisher is drafting a negative Yelp review in his head already.
My own stomach grumbles. It’s time for this human to eat lunch – so it’s time to leave the ponds. Won-ok reports that she has shot more than 1,200 pictures this morning. I’ve taken another 300.
I glance down at my snake tracks in the mud and spot another water bottle. “Pure Water,” the label reads – taunting me. I realize even as I bend over to pick it up and take it home for recycling that I’m dropping but a pebble in the ocean; or, better said, keeping one out of it. But it’s all that I have hands to carry now.
I step back on the paved path home, not quite sure what to make of our latest walk through the Sligo Creek woods. Which will register more heavily in my mind – the goose concert and the wild beauty of the last three hours — or the weight of all the pebbles I left behind?
Check out our belted kingfisher photo gallery, too.