The heat was brutal. What little residual coolness my skin retained from the car’s air conditioner was ripped away as soon as I left the shade. My skin and hair were on fire. My shirt where it lay across my shoulders felt like it had just been pressed with a steaming iron. Somewhere in the back of my brain I could hear the sizzle of a proverbial egg frying on a sidewalk. I took a deep breath and the infernal air baked my trachea on the way down.
Summer’s here, I thought and smiled.
It had been about 6 weeks since the last time I managed to get away and go for a hike, just me and my camera. I had come to this very place, an artificial wetland created by the state after they had dammed a local river and flooded the natural wetlands. It’s a great place to go birding and butterfly hunting.
That day in the spring, the last time I was here, the air still had a nip, a gentle breeze had ruffled my hair, and big fluffy white clouds drifted on a sea of cerulean blue. What a difference a few weeks made. The sky was bleached and pale. It was still as an empty church. Not the slightest breeze moved in the trees. The birds, though, were everywhere and they were singing.
I steeled myself against the heat and started walking. The path is actually a narrow road – just 2 graveled tire tracks lined with high grass and wildflowers. It makes a big loop around a marsh and is bordered by pine woods on the outer edge. I glanced down the path and froze. Something was moving in the grass about 20 yards ahead. I squinted. Not a squirrel or a bird. It was brown and seemed to hover about a foot off the ground. I turned on my camera, zoomed in and saw this:
Can you tell what it is? I was still puzzled, so I waited a moment. And then this popped up:
He watched me for a moment and fled when I took a step. I felt kind of bad for interrupting his foraging.
Part of the fun when I go for a hike is that I never know what I’m going to see. Today there were black swallowtails everywhere– big, beautiful black swallowtails flashing their brilliant yellow and iridescent blue.
And not one of them would stop and hold still even for a moment. They would appear out of nowhere, flutter aimlessly about, within tantalizing reach of my zoom lens, and then swoop away again without checking out a single flower.
So I took pictures of the flowers because they didn’t fly away before I could focus.
When I finally did get a bug to hold still for me, it wasn’t a butterfly.
Just after this, I was walking along, thinking about icy Gatorade and wishing for a breeze, when something splashed, squawked and 3 big shapes flew out of the reeds to my left. Since my lightning reflexes kind of misfired, I didn’t get a photo of the mystery squawker(s) until one landed in the top of a nearby tree.
I had no idea what bird this was and that illustrates part of the fun of my little hobby – looking stuff up when I get home. Uploading my photos after a hike is like a present I get to open after I have showered, rehydrated, and collapsed into a comfortable chair with my laptop. It’s even more fun if there is a) a particularly good photo or b) a photo of something I have never seen (or noticed) before. This one was particularly fun to figure out because it’s a juvenile and because at first I couldn’t find a match that could do this:
This one landed in a neighboring tree and his body language says he is quite alarmed. So he stretches out his neck and raises his crest to make himself appear bigger. But most photos, including the ones in my field guide or on Cornell’s excellent site, don’t show the crest. So it took me a little while to figure out that they are juvenile green herons. I felt such a happy, warm glow when I identified him.
Sometimes, I am convinced that I was born in the wrong time. I should have lived in the 19th century when natural history was still such a mystery and explorers all over the world were sketching rocks and fossils and bugs and birds in their notebooks so they could study them later and identify or compare and classify and name the new species. I would like to have lived when Alfred Wallace was still tramping about in the jungles of South America or the East Indies, when Charles Darwin was sailing around the world, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne wrote their fantastic tales, when museums still sent great expeditions all over the world to bring back artifacts and specimens and first hand accounts.
But this is not the dark continent of Edgar Rice Burroughs or the Gobi desert or the Amazon rain forest. It’s a rather pleasant walk around a big, artificially-designed swampy area with songbirds and butterflies. No leopard waits to sink it’s fangs into my skull and drag me up into a tree, no malaria-carrying mosquito will take my blood and leave me feverish, and I’m not going to stumble across ancient ruins in a clearing or find a plateau full of leftover dinosaurs. But I will get to go home and look up my bird using a world wide web of interconnected machines that not even Jules Verne could imagine and then write a little diddle about it that people all over the world might read within minutes.
Pretty cool really, but still sometimes I have to get away from the machines and come walk where I can’t hear engines. I have to sit by the water to enjoy the weak, bloodwarm breeze that finally sprung up and study the world upside down in the water and flight of dragonflies.
When I got restless again, I walked until I found a bank of purple and white.
I took a dozen photos of these flowers trying to figure out the right light and angle to do them justice when this flew into the frame:
And then a male joined her:
And then they were gone:
As they left, they orbited each other like twin suns, each captured by the other’s gravity, revolving in a fluttering ball to within a few inches of my face, hanging there for a moment like some fantastic Christmas ornament and then they spun away.
About then, I realized my tongue felt like parchment. I had left the water in the car because I didn’t want to carry it and my camera too and I was only halfway around the loop. I resolved to pick up the pace, took two steps and found this:
Can you imagine having to shed your skin every time you grew? The next time I am aggravated with the trials of parenting teenagers, I think I will try to remember to be grateful that I don’t have to pick up their old skins along with their dirty socks.
By this time, I could feel my skin burning through my sunscreen, so I really did pick up the pace. I spent the last half mile daydreaming about swimming in a river in Texas where I used to go hiking and fossil hunting. Even in the dead of summer when it hadn’t rained in weeks and I could walk parts of the river bed without getting my ankles wet, I knew where a deep shady pool was that never went dry and the water was always cool and green. But that’s another story.