On an evening in late April as I walked along the road, my eye was drawn to a bird swimming across the marsh in a peculiar, herky-jerky fashion.
When I zoomed in with my camera and saw the distinctive black and white markings plus the brilliant red beak, it was clear that this bird was hitherto unknown to yours truly.
Upon learning the bird is called a Common Gallinule, and it is indeed a common, summer-long resident in marshes throughout North America, I felt like a particularly inept amateur ornithologist. If it’s so common why had I never spotted one in five summers of prowling this marsh?
Thus began a long quest to learn the habits of the gallinule. Before long I’d caught many fleeting glimpses, in all corners of the marsh, and I learned to recognize some of its extensive vocal repertoire when it was lurking out of sight. Months went by without my ever capturing a reasonably good picture.
But this frustration was such fun! While I peered into the reeds where the gallinules dwell, I saw many other birds including several that I had never known before.
The nimble Marsh Wren is a good bit more numerous than the gallinule, but is likewise hard to catch in a still photo.
Somewhat bigger are the various sandpipers that feed on the mudflats and occasionally walk across lily pads.
I can’t be sure of the identity of this piper spotted just this week. To me it looks like a Greater Yellowlegs, which typically move through here only on their way to and from nesting areas far to the north. I’d be grateful to any reader who can identify this bird; please send me a note here.
Gazing into the reeds, you might also spot a juvenile Green Heron, like this one seen in the bright light of the setting sun.
The Great Blue Heron is not typically shy, but even they will sometimes hide in the tall reeds.
A Great Blue Heron inadvertently played a key role in allowing me to finally get a good close look at the gallinules. As I watched this heron swoop down on a convenient log and nail the landing, we both had a surprise.
The heron’s landing startled a female Wood Duck, tucked almost out of sight at the left end of the log. The Duck gave a loud quack, which prompted a louder squawk from the Heron, who re-launched from the log with great comic effect.
And all this high drama distracted a gallinule family who hang out behind this log, as they didn’t notice a photographer slowly drifting closer.
For once I got more than a fleeting glimpse, and I was thrilled to see an adult with two chicks. Clearly, feet which can straddle floating sticks or reeds are essential equipment, as the young ones had already grown toes nearly as long as their downy bodies.
When I’d had time to take several photos my presence was duly noted. The birds disappeared into the shadowy reeds and left me with their squeaky serenade.
Photo at top of page: Piper One (click here for full-screen image)