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.
The rest of our walk was not long, less than half a mile, skirting the edge of a wet meadow where sedges with their graceful, arching stems seemed to be competing for dominance with thickets of invasive multiflora rose. We heard field sparrows singing, unseen among the sedges, and a kestrel, smallest of our falcons, flew swiftly by. Such an astonishing diversity of habitats and vegetation types in this small area bordered by the creek — no wonder there is such an abundance and variety of birdlife here. Yet this place, like all natural places, is in transition, in the process of becoming a different kind of natural community. Will its biodiversity survive, or will the rosebushes take over completely? It’s hard to say, except that much depends on how the field is managed, whether and how often they are mowed or brush hogged. I, for one, hope the meadows are kept open, for this kind of habitat, the kind needed by bluebirds, bobolinks, and other grassland species, is increasingly rare in our region.
On such a short walk, one instinctively calibrates one’s pace to the scale of the terrain, pausing to savor things overlooked entirely, or just glanced at in passing on longer excursions. A white-tailed dragonfly poised on a grass stem, wings glinting in the sun, a golden snail extending its “horns,” the tasseled auburn and violet flowers of grasses — these things, and others like them, were the highlights of our saunter. And we were grateful for the opportunity to notice and linger over them afforded us by the modest, unassuming character of this town preserve. A more impressive site, with sweeping vistas, draws our view outward toward the distant horizon, but an unprepossessing corner of the countryside such as this one invites our attention to the small, and the near at hand. We had come upon a place that spoke to us in a voice so quiet it was almost a whisper, and in the waning hours of that afternoon we were ready to listen.