A thoughtful neighbor texts us a wildlife sighting tip that newly born goslings are roaming the Sligo Creek Trail by the University Boulevard stormwater retention ponds. Won-ok and I throw on our wildlife gear – many pounds of cameras, binoculars, sound recorders and microphones stuffing every pocket of our vests — and race in that direction. It’s pouring rain and we get drenched within minutes — but we don’t care: we’re not about to miss baby Canada geese, especially if they belong to the nesting mother we’ve been hanging out with for the past few weeks.
We dart deep into the woods to check on “our” Mama Goose, the one who has endured so much lately. She’s still sitting atop her nest. We see no hatchlings in the area, but her wings are spread wider than they ever have been before. Maybe she’s covering newborns! We keep our distance and watch her for a while but see no signs of movement.
I film a couple of “60 Seconds of Solitude” video segments in the thumping rain, then we move on.
We amble toward the ponds, twigs and leaves crunching beneath our feet as we walk. A wood duck with its Trojan warrior head swoops down from the tree canopy and skids to a stop right in front of us. Won-ok clicks away on her Canon camera while I scan the ponds with my bins. The sight of a stunning green heron fills my lenses – jolting me so strongly that I slam into my wife and almost knock her down into the squishy mud. Won-ok retains her balance, whips around and shoots rapid-fire at the heron. It’s standing on a floating log, peering at the water and hoping to find a small fish or some beak-watering insects. It’s much smaller than the great blue herons we’ve seen but more rare to encounter. I’ve traveled the entire Anacostia River Tributary Trail System for a dozen years and spotted a green heron maybe twice. Today makes three and I know the moment won’t last – but it does. Like the great blue herons who have been so kind to us during their rare appearances, this green heron lingers on the log long enough for us to get as soaked in admiration as we are by the rain.
I can barely breathe. Won-ok can barely breathe. It’s only May, yet we can’t count the number of breathless moments Sligo Creek has given us this year. We even glance at each other to non-verbally ask if we’re actually experiencing this moment, or if we’re dreaming.
It’s real. This is happening.
We look up: more wildlife everywhere! Won-ok and I divide and conquer. She works her way around the ponds to the dam side. I stay where I am. I’ve got only my iPhone but if something great comes close enough to me on this rainy day, I’ll be able to capture some video – and maybe a lucky photo. I’m happy enough just to keep standing in the downpour, feeling the cold rain ice my face and hands. This does not remotely feel like spring. My adrenaline is pumping so hard, though, that the chill is invigorating. If all the birds can hang out in this weather, I can, too.
As Won-ok makes her way clockwise around the ponds, I calm down for just a minute. My ears fill with the excited chirps and chatter of more bird species than I can count; creek water fills boots not up to the task. No matter. My mind is one with my surroundings. It’s just me, Sligo Creek, and the wild!
Won-ok reaches the dam and checks a spot of shrubbery we know to be popular with red-winged blackbirds and Eastern bluebirds. One of each flutters over to it right on cue. I hear the Canon’s click, click, click in my mind. I see through my binoculars that’s she’s getting great shots.
Could this day get any more awesome?
I can barely finish the question before the answer comes.
The green heron is resting about 50 yards straight ahead in the direction Won-ok is walking, hanging out by the cement-covered structure housing the valves that help control the rising Sligo Creek floodwater. I signal to Won-ok. She’s on it! She tries to find the perfect pace to reach the heron. Too quick, and she’ll scare the bird away. Too slow, and she won’t snag the shots.
A green and brown blur plops into the water off to my right.
I pivot and spot my favorite pair of mallards. I’m all but certain it’s the honeymoon couple I’ve been watching for two months. I don’t know if the concept of “fun” exists in bird brains, but the female seems to be having a blast as she dives off a tree stump and splashes into the water two feet below. Then she hops back on the stump and does it again! Her drake watches without apparent comment.
Diving practice over, the couple swims toward Won-ok. She captures their images and turns back to her pursuit of the green heron, now relaxing at the far corner of the pond just beyond the valves. I almost faint from asphyxiation when I see through my Orion TurboView 8 x 21 binoculars that our new green friend is again letting Won-ok take some up-close and personal photos!
Maybe this is just luck, or perhaps it’s some greater force in the universe rewarding us for the past five months of trying to tell Sligo Creek’s stories. Either way, today is a gift. There aren’t words strong enough to express my gratitude.
My peripheral vision picks up movement to the left.
Two geese parents are leading a flotilla back toward the center of the ponds. I unleash a piercing “yuu!” sound I used to utter to catch the attention of my Siberian huskies when they were a distance from me. Won-ok and I use it now to find each other in thick woods and, in pre-pandemic times, crowded sports stadiums. She spins around and follows the line from my fingers to the geese. The green heron exits stage right, so Won-ok starts walking, then running, to keep up with the shockingly fast gosling swimmers.
How can they pick up that much speed when they’ve only been alive for a few days?
The family of five or six continues to the end of the pond, waddles out, and climbs the bank to dine on some freshly washed grass.
My peripheral vision picks up movement to the right.
Another couple of geese parents are leading a smaller family back to the right. And wait, the little ones aren’t floating on top of the water; they’re clinging to their mother so tightly that it looks from a distance like they’re riding their mother’s tail feathers like they’re on a horse!
“Yuu!” I scream, reaching a pitch that I think impresses even the birds. I jump up and down and point, even as I recognize the jumping part is unnecessary. Exuberance!
I watch Won-ok race the length of the ponds again, capturing the near-rodeo in still shots and, I hope, video. She looks at me from across the water and pumps her fists like she just won a tennis match. Photo victory!
I pump my fists back at her, encouraging her on. Neither one of us can take our eyes or lenses off the baby geese. They may be the singularly most adorable spectacle I’ve ever seen, and I again nearly faint. A strange voice that sounds like Cookie Monster with a bad case of laryngitis comes out of me, the way it often does in such joyous moments. “Oh. My. Goodness!” I scream out loud to no one in particular.
My binoculars are working like a divining rod today. Everywhere I turn, something incredible leaps into my line of sight. I can sometimes spend hours out by the ponds without seeing a fraction of what I’m witnessing now. Hawks fly overhead. Tadpoles squirt by below. A couple of solitary sandpipers drink like they’ve just emerged from a desert. Never seen them here before. Love it!
Geese honk from every direction. Streaks of red, blue, green, brown, and yellows whoosh by me. The scent of wet grass lingers in the air. Rain pelts my nylon jacket. My boots splish-splash with every step. My mind is still racing, heart pumping.
Breathe!, I remind myself. Breathe.
I slow down my lungs and my brain.
I stand there, motionless, on numbed feet. Rainwater trickles down my face and into my mouth. Perhaps for the first time ever, I can actually taste the succulence of Sligo Creek. I’ll savor it for the rest of my life.