The Marsh, the Boy, and the Birds

DAWN on New Year's Day, and my nose twitched from the smell of the marsh as I stood on the road that overlooked the Crow Point Wildlife Refuge. This cove in San Diego's Mission Bay is a mix of sand, mud, vegetation, swamp, and lagoon fed by urban drains and sewage. While unappealing to most humans, it is home to dozens of species of local and migrating birds.

As I strapped a tripod to my backpack, a few muted tern calls signaled the awakening of the marsh. But suddenly those peaceful sounds were broken by the warning cries of several birds. The sunlight, just then extending into the marsh's low-lying vegetation, revealed movement in the fenced-in nature preserve. United States Fish and Wildlife no-trespassing signs were posted around the area, but someone was thrashing about in the reeds. I threw the backpack over my shoulder and trotted down the road to see what was going on.

I reached the southerly fence of the preserve and saw birds flying up from the vegetation about 50 yards north. Pulling binoculars from my backpack, I focused in on a boy with a fishing pole. My shrill whistle and a sweeping arm motion brought him reluctantly my way.

Wet jeans were rolled up to his knees, and his white T-shirt was smudged with fresh mud. We surveyed each other through the chain-link fence, his eyes squinting in the sun that was now fully over the horizon.

``You shouldn't be in there, you know,'' I said.

He placed his fishing pole and a bucket on the mud and shaded his eyes with his hand. With his freckles and uncombed red hair, he looked like my son at 10 years old. ``It's for birds only. No people allowed.''

``It's good fishing,'' he said finally.

``So's Fisherman's Cove. Up by the bridge.'' I pointed south, away from the preserve.

``Not as good as here,'' he said.

``That's because no one can legally be in there.''

``I've been in here before, and nobody said anything.''

``If the Fish and Game Warden comes, he'll cite you. Your parents won't be happy about that.''

``Big deal. My mom doesn't care. Besides, they have to catch me first.''

With that he picked up the pole and bucket and walked back into the marsh.

I considered my options. To get him, I'd have to wade in the bay around the fence, and then what would I do with a surly kid, even if I caught him? I decided to lure him out.

Trudging up a sand hill near the fence, I set up the tripod and screwed on the telescope. I scanned the marsh and focused on the boy, who was looking in my direction. Good. Turning the scope westerly, I spotted black skimmers flying from the sand spit where they had been sleeping.

Skimmers are the only birds whose beaks are shaped with the lower part longer than the upper, and Crown Point is one of the few places where one can see these magnificent, bright orange-beaked birds skim the surface of the bay for fish. Pulling a binder from my backpack, I began making notes, vowing to enjoy my hobby no matter what.

A while later, I saw the boy angling my way. When he was near enough, I called to him, ``How you doing?''

``Not so good,'' he said, approaching the fence. ``I guess the tide's too low.''

``You've got a while before it comes in. Come and have a look, if you want.''

He walked along the fence into the water, waded to the other side, and walked up the hill.

``Take a look through here.'' I pointed to the eyepiece. ``It's the only way to really see the birds. They look about 20 times closer.'' He stood back, eyeing me and the complex instrument. Finally, he put his gear down and squinted into the scope.

I showed him how to adjust the dials and pointed to a group of ducks floating about a hundred yards out. ``See the ones with the silver sides?'' I asked, looking through my binoculars. ``They're scaup. They spent the summer in northern Canada, thousands of miles from here.''

After focusing, he said, ``They're pretty.''

PEOPLE are always surprised at their first view of birds in a good scope: The features and vivid colors become evident.

``They'll fatten up on marsh vegetation this winter and go back to Canada in the summer to have babies,'' I said. ``Some of these birds you're seeing were born just eight months ago. That would be like you and your parents walking across the United States to find a special restaurant.''

He pulled away from the telescope. ``I don't have parents,'' he said, emphasizing the plural.

``Well, I just meant to impress you with how far they go,'' I stammered. ``Let's try another one.'' I pointed to a snowy egret stalking the shallows for fish. The white bird was easy to spot in the greenish-brown vegetation.

``I've never seen one like that before.''

``That's because most birds are shy,'' I said. ``When you get close they hide or fly off. Also, when most people see a white bird, they think it's a sea gull and don't look closely. They don't realize there's a variety of birds.''

``It's got big yellow feet,'' he said, looking in the scope.

``And what color beak?''


``Right. I'll tell you something about the snowy. Eighty, 90 years ago, women liked hats with feathers on them. They especially liked long snowy-egret feathers, and the birds were hunted almost to extinction.''

Just then a larger white bird stepped out of the reeds next to the snowy.

``Wow, is that the snowy's mother?'' he asked.

I laughed. ``No, that's a different species. A great egret. Similar in appearance and behavior but about twice as big. Tell me the color of the beak and feet.''

``Let's see.'' He focused the scope. ``Yellow beak and black feet.''

``So, if you see a white bird with long legs and neck and you can't judge the size, check the color of the beak and feet and you'll know if it's a snowy or a great egret. That's being a birder.''

``A what?''

``A birder. Someone who likes birds enough to learn about the different ones.''

We heard a splash in the shallows and saw a bird emerge from the water with a sardine in its beak. The blue-gray bird with a distinctive bushy head crest landed on the fence nearby. The six-inch fish in its beak looked too big for the foot-long bird to swallow. But the bird flipped the fish into its mouth head-first and devoured it whole, the tail slowly inching out of sight.

``That kingfisher having breakfast makes me hungry,'' I said, smiling. I pulled two wrapped sandwiches out of my backpack. ``My wife made them. Would you like one?''

He hesitated, then saw the ham and cheese and nodded. We sat on the sand looking out at the marsh. I nibbled my sandwich while he ate ravenously.

``My name's Lloyd. What's yours?''

``Davy,'' he said, after swallowing a mouthful.

``Nice having the place all to ourselves. I guess everyone's sleeping late after New Year's Eve.''

He nodded and took another bite.

``You must really like fishing to get up before dawn?''

He frowned. ``My mom's boyfriend stayed over. I just wanted to get out before they woke up, so I came down here.''

``I see. Well, it's nice to be out on a fine morning.'' I folded the sandwich wrappers and stuck them in the trash pouch of my backpack.

``How'd you get started fishing?''

``My friend from school. He lives near here. Well, my mom and I do to too, now, but we just moved here.''

``So you'll be here a lot?''

``Probably. Me and my friend. He's coming this morning, too.''

I got a bag of oatmeal cookies from my backpack and offered him one. ``He's the one that taught you about fishing?''

``Yeah, and digging clams for bait and stuff like that.''

``And he's the one that got you going into the nature preserve.''

He hesitated, then nodded.

Suddenly, loud chirping drew our attention to a flock of finches flying from the bushes behind us. ``They're spooked by that kestrel.'' I pointed overhead. ``Kestrels usually feed on rodents and caterpillars, but sometimes they eat small birds.'' The fast-flying falcon swooped down, but the finches swerved to avoid him and he flew away after easier prey.

Sleep was beginning to overtake me. ``Let's play a game while you're waiting for your friend,'' I said. ``You spot the birds in the scope and describe them to me. Without looking, I'll tell you about them.''

I laid on the sandy slope and used the backpack as a pillow. ``Spot any bird and tell me its color.''

After some searching, he said, ``Brown.''

``How big compared to the snowy egret we saw earlier?'' I pulled the hat over my face and closed my eyes.

``A little smaller.''

``What's the brown bird doing? What's its behavior?''

``It's just walking and kind of pecking the mud.''

``He's feeding on tiny animals,'' I said. ``Is it with more birds of the same kind?''

``Uh huh.''

``How many?''

``Four. No. Two more. Six.''

``What color is the beak?''

``Kind of orange or maybe pink. With a black tip.''

``Good. Marbled godwit. Common here and a year-round resident.'' I snuggled my backside in the sand, feeling more relaxed than I had for days. ``Find another.''

We identified a dozen species as I lay out half asleep. The marsh was fully awake by then, and I heard the distinctive clattering of clapper rails above the sounds of other busily feeding birds. When I realized Davy had been quiet for some time, I sat up and pushed my hat back. ``So, is the marsh worth preserving?''

``I guess. But couldn't I fish there just once in a while?''

``If you did, so could others. And even one person disturbs the birds and the plants and animals they eat. Some city birds, like sparrows, eat just about anything and can live anywhere, but the birds you're seeing can only live here and eat marsh food.'' I reached for the bag of cookies. ``Speaking of food, let's have another.''

WE munched thoughtfully. ``You said you dug clams for bait. Clams are the main food for some of these birds. When you take clams, you're taking their food.'' His bare foot dug a hole in the sand.

I stood up and brushed the sand off my pants. ``This whole area,'' I made an arc with my arm, ``was once thousands of acres of marsh. Then there was room for people to hunt and fish. Over the years these roads, buildings, and parks were built and the birds got squeezed out. All that's left are a few areas like this, and they need to be saved.''

Suddenly a great roar erupted from the marsh. All the birds in the preserve were flying. Hundreds of them rose up in an agitated circular flight. Their cries rose above the sound of beating wings.

``What's the matter?'' he asked.

A coopers hawk was soaring above the swarm. ``It's a bird hawk. Unusual here.'' As I pointed, it swooped into the foray and snagged a bird in its talons. ``Their only prey is other birds. Sometimes they eat species that are almost as big as they are, like that willet.'' The hawk flew with its heavy prey to perch on a post near the edge of the preserve. The other birds settled down, knowing the hawk wouldn't hunt again for a while.

We watched the hawk squeeze the willet to death, occasionally jabbing it with its powerful beak. ``It's a female,'' I said. ``You can tell by the curved tail and the size. Female hawks are bigger than males.'' Then the hawk plucked the willet, its feathers floating around her like a halo.

The boy was fascinated by this. We watched as she devoured the other bird.

Putting the empty cookie bag in my backpack, I found the extra bird field guide that I had gotten for Christmas. ``Here, take a look at this.''

He looked at the color pictures that filled the book. ``Neat. Hey, here's the coopers hawk.''

While he looked at the book, I scanned the shoreline and saw someone walking toward us. ``We have a visitor.''

``It's my friend,'' he said jumping up and handing me the book.

After he gathered his pole and bucket, we faced each other awkwardly. ``I'd like you to have it,'' I said, holding out the book. He stood with his pole in one hand, his bucket in the other, eyes squinting as when we first met. ``Here, I'll put it in your bucket for now. Go on, meet your friend. Maybe I'll see you next time.''

``Guess what I just saw?'' he yelled to the other boy.

They met down by the fence. When the other boy started to wade in the water, Davy grabbed his arm and they spoke in urgent muffled tones.

A few minutes later, with fishing poles on their shoulders and buckets in their hands, they walked south toward Fisherman's Cove. Davy looked over his shoulder, waved the bucket, and smiled.

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