Nature at your doorstep – The Marsh in Spring

Canadian goose family. (photo by Richard Parisio)

Canadian goose family. (photo by Richard Parisio)

A beloved place is like a reliable friend: it demands nothing from you, asks only for your patient attention, that you enter into its presence with an open heart and a listening mind. The Nyquist-Harcourt Sanctuary, on an oxbow, or cut-off meander loop, of the Wallkill, is such a place for me. A walk there, in any season, is itself a kind of meandering, a journey with no destination, traveling not to get somewhere, but to be somewhere. My walk today ends where it begins, at the wooden bridge over the open marsh, and is full of familiar pleasures and unexpected delights.

The marsh is buzzing with new life, and on this warm, humid afternoon seems full to bursting with the sundrenched abundance of summer. But the lush green arrowleaf and pickerelweed have not yet begun to flower, and the cattails are not yet releasing their clouds of yellow pollen into the air. That’s still to come, for the marsh greens up in spring, and flowers in summer, for the most part. Meadows along the trail that skirts the water are vibrant with the white and pink of dame’s rocket, and the yellow of winter cress flowers. Song sparrows are staking their claims to nesting territories in the fields with cheerful bursts of song, and redwinged blackbirds are everywhere, the males chanting “oka-lee” from the thickets. A third-grader recently gave me a better verbal equivalent of the latter’s song: he said they were really shouting “look at me!” as they flash their scarlet epaulets, which captures their brash appearance as well as their sound. Female redwings are much more modest, looking like large, brown-streaked sparrows quietly going about the business of nesting.

Richard Parisio VERTICALTwo families of Canada geese swim by, pairs of adults with still-fuzzy goslings in tow. The grassy path is strewn with many reminders of just how abundant these non-migratory, hybrid geese have become in our region. A separate population from the high-flying migrants whose distant cries overhead are among the first heralds of spring, these descendants of game farm-bred geese have become quite a pest, fouling the air and water with their ubiquitous droppings wherever grass grows nears open water, as it does here at the sanctuary. But for a moment, as I watch these geese drift placidly along with their young, I forget they are a nuisance and then remember that we humans are the cause of the goose problem we complain about, as we are the cause of so many other serious imbalances in the natural world.

Advertisement

Two great blue herons, certainly a mating pair, lift their great wings from the surface of the marsh, and flap by with long necks drawn up into S curves, and long legs trailing. Their flight is somehow both ungainly and supremely graceful, and expresses an absence of haste that I envy. Herons may be startled into flight, but not hurried. And a heron standing in the shallows, fishing, is a study in patience, the art of waiting till just the right moment to strike. I watch one for a while, neck arched forward slightly, spear like bill poised above his own reflection in the water, as if he were a model posing for a portrait. But this time his patience outlasts mine, and I move on before he takes a stab at a fish or fat tadpole.

Past the far side of the oxbow I enter the floodplain forest of mature pin oaks that offers welcome shade on this summery day. Jack-in-the-pulpit stands with its hooded flowers among the sprawling poison ivy vines on the ground, and a new season’s crop of glassy-stemmed jewelweed is sprouting up from the moist soil. Jewelweed is a prolific annual in wet places, and all these plants have grown from seeds scattered by the exploding pods of last summer’s plants, which died back with the first frosts. It’s good to see the vitality of these wild sowings, and I look forward to the spotted orange or yellow (depending on the species) sac-shaped blossoms that will soon be visited by bumblebees and hummingbirds. Right now many of the blue-green leaves hold drops of water that are indeed jewel-like.

Overhead I hear the clear ringing song of a Baltimore oriole. I strain for a glimpse of his brilliant orange and black plumage, but he is so high up in the canopy that I can’t get a good look. The oriole has all the bravado of the redwing, and is also a blackbird, but has a more melodious song. “One of the ones that Midas touched/ Who failed to touch us all” says Emily Dickinson, but for now I’ll have to settle for the golden notes of his song.

As I head back through the swamp forest of pin oak, elm, and red maple I look up to see, just ten feet away, a common yellowthroat on a low branch. One of the warblers who loves dense tangles of brush, popping out in the open only rarely, I usually hear the yellowthroat’s “witchety witchety witchety” song before, and often without, seeing the small singer. But this bright yellow bird with his black mask, called the “lone ranger” by one of my early birding mentors, is right out in plain sight, quietly trading glances with me as he hunts for insects among the leaves. It’s a treat to see him like that, a small gift to compensate me for my failed attempt to view the oriole. And it reminds me that each walk here is a new walk, and the act of paying attention is always rewarded.

Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (richparisio@gmail.com) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.