Seeing the Wild Side of the Capital Region
(“Turkey Trot” photo by William M. Dowd; “Deer at Dinner” photo by April L. Dowd)
Andre, the larger of The Other Beings that co-inhabit our house up here on Weathering Heights overlooking the Hudson River, isn’t given to sudden movements unless there is food involved. This morning was a different matter entirely.
What had struck a chord at the very center of his feline being was the huge blue jay perched in the crabapple tree outside the kitchen window. The smaller finches, nuthatches, cardinals, woodpeckers, titmouses (titmice, titmeese? … I never can quite get it straight) and assorted wild birds that usually perch there awaiting their turn at the suet and mixed-seed cages had been temporarily spooked by big bird.
Whiskers standing straight out, tail twitching, that funny little mewling noise deep in the throat that beings of his persuasion often employ when contemplating winged potential food. Finally, I thought, he’s distracted from breakfast and ready to exercise his Creator’s design by making a mad dash at the window to scare off the cocky intruder.
Then, Lily, the smaller (but not by much) of The Other Beings, glided sleepily down the stairs from the loft where she’d spent the night on her comfy pillow bed, ready for breakfast and mewing at Andre to join her at the dish.
That broke the magical spell and we all lapsed into the morning routine. A forkful of tuna for each of them, a bowl of fresh water, and then a bowl of crunchy stuff to keep their tummies satisfied and their teeth sparking clean.
There still was hope for them to pay attention to the world around them. Morning sunshine actually was spilling over Bald Mountain just behind us, that peak you can identify as you cross the river from Albany County to Rensselaer County on Route 7 by the soaring WNYT television tower it hosts.
Canada geese, wild turkeys, cackling crows and other bully birds were nowhere in sight for a change. The rainbow of smaller creatures would soon be twittering and scampering about in full view before heading off on their migratory ways. All in all, a rather satisfying way to start an autumn day.
It’s typical of life in the Capital Region, or at least typical of the wildlife.
No matter how many office towers we erect, traffic roundabouts we install, housing developments we sprout, the wildlife keeps reminding us we’re still very close to unspoiled nature.
One of the most vivid reminders came while playing golf at Brunswick Greens, just outside Troy.
The quick rustling in the cattail reeds and marsh grass at the edge of the pond put me on alert. The sudden beating of powerful wings and a loud, clacking kuck kuck kuck sound startled me nevertheless.
The insistent sound continued, as the bird obviously tried to lure us away from a nest it thought we might disturb. That’s when it raised the shaggy crest on its dark head, a sharp contrast to its white throat, chestnut-colored neck and bluish-green back.
Ah, ha. A green heron. No wonder I love playing golf.
As a gypsy golfer who plays only sporadically and belongs to no particular club, I’ve been privy to observing wildlife on numerous courses in the Capital Region.
Given my particular level of play — sub-par in the truest sense of the phrase — I’ve also had many opportunities to go thrashing about in woods, ponds, swamps and undergrowth in search of an errant ball. It’s amazing how many snakes, rabbits and chipmunks a clumsy golfer can flush out of hiding, along with the occasional skunk.
But there is nothing like simply watching, without disturbing, golf course wildlife.
On the day I saw the green heron, my buddy and I sat sipping cool drinks after a round of destroying golf balls and portions of our self-confidence.
As our gaze swept over the rise and fall of the course, taking in the views of lush green grass and stands of paper birch, dense pines and maples, towering red oaks and fernlike black walnut, a majestic white bird swooped low over a pond barely 50 yards from us.
It touched down like a feather, its brilliant white plumage and long, thin black legs in sharp contrast to the manicured emerald grass. It was a great egret, often mistaken for the snowy egret but differentiated by its black feet compared to what bird watchers refer to as the snowy’s “golden slippers.’’
The slender, stately creature extended its neck toward the water, then gently stepped into the pond, causing barely a ripple. The hunt for food was on as nature maintained its eternal rhythm despite the staccato tsss tsss tsss of an oscillating lawn sprinkler and the occasional cries of golfers alternately cursing and cheering their shots.
These solitary waders are in sharp contrast to that most prolific of wild birds, the Canada goose.
You don’t have to be on a golf course to spot the muscular 12-15 pound honkers that permeate any patch of ground around here that is near a water supply. But, it is on those courses they display a particularly belligerent attitude, helped along by their strength of numbers.
I recall one early afternoon I was leisurely tracking down an errant 3-iron shot near a large pond on the Western Turnpike Golf Course in Guilderland.
Off in the distance I heard a soft, thrumming sound. As I zeroed in on its source, I realized it was a wave of Canada geese maneuvering for a pond landing.
Fluttering wings extended above them, they were aiming straight down. As they hit the surface the slapping sound of webbed feet on water was like a muffled orchestra percussion section, supplying the meter for this aerial ballet.
No sooner had they landed and paddled to one end of the pond, a second wave came in. Then a third. And, finally, a smaller fourth wave of stragglers that had formed up overhead as the stronger flyers took care of business down below.
It was an elegant, inspiring sight that stopped all the golfers in their tracks to watch as the rays of the late afternoon sun bounced off the smooth feathers and rippled water, adding accents to the tableau.
The euphoria such unexpected simple pleasures can inspire was, however, short lived. By the time I found my ball, most of the geese had exited the pond in search of food and had surrounded the ball.
As I stood knee-deep in honkers, unable to swing my club too far for fear of striking one of them and prompting retribution from the notoriously grumpy birds, I wondered if the experience was worth the trouble.
Now that I look back on this marvelous display of nature, I’m convinced it was.
William M. Dowd is a Capital Region writer and photographer specializing in food, drink and destinations at Dowd’s Guides.