After a week or more of mostly rainy weather, the return of sunshine and blue skies inspired us to go for a walk — but where? On our return from a Father’s Day picnic in Rhinebeck, we decided to drive east to Pine Plains, then south along Route 82 to the Audubon Society’s Buttercup Farm Sanctuary just past the village. Finding the trails there still swamped in the wake of recent downpours, we decided to try another spot. It was late in the day by then, and we were unfamiliar with the area, so it was strictly good fortune that led us to the perfect place for an afternoon ramble. We turned off the road, Salt Point Turnpike, and headed down a mown path that led along a meadow full of milkweed not yet in flower, but bearing round clusters of flower buds. An indigo bunting sang sweetly in the trees above us, then flew across the field to give us a brief glimpse of his splendid, cobalt-blue plumage. Tree swallows skimmed the grasses in their scissoring flight, swooping and swerving though the air in their hunt for insects on the wing.
We followed the path to the bank of the Wappingers Creek, whose swirling, rain-swollen current reminded Rebecca of the creek where she spent summer days as a girl growing up in the rural region near Utica, NY. She sat for a while on a large creek-side rock, while I tried to get a look at a Baltimore oriole whose clear whistling song rang out from the top of a maple nearby. I sighted the brilliant black and red-gold oriole at last, then rejoined her by the stream. While Rebecca was sitting there alone, a mouse-like animal had emerged from the leaf litter and approached within a few inches of her, looked at her for a few seconds, then disappeared into the tangle of vegetation again. From her description of the animal — short-tailed, with small eyes — I guessed she had had a close encounter with a short-tailed shrew, a very abundant but seldom seen, tiny creature, with a voracious appetite for insects, earthworms, anything that moves, even other shrews. Shrews are quite nearsighted, which might explain why this one came so close. They spend part of their very active lives in shallow runways in the soil and leaf litter, and sure enough we spotted such a runway with its one-inch opening near the rock. During her brief sojourn there, Rebecca had also watched a pair of cedar waxwings conduct their courtship ritual: one bird sidled over to the other on the branch where she was perched and offered her a berry to eat. By the time I arrived this little exchange was over, but the waxwings were still there, and they seemed to be picking insects out of the air, flycatcher-style. Before we left this spot, we paused to watch the swirling movements of whirligig beetles on the surface of a pool. These insects are equipped with bifocal eyes, so they can peer under and above the water’s surface at once to spot danger or prey.