A Harbinger of Spring on One Leg
THE paging device that I have in my workshop, 50 paces from the house, permits my favorite housekeeper to notify me immediately when some limited warranty runs out and a household appliance doesn't work anymore. The other day it jumped up and down on the shelf, and I reasonably presumed the house was on fire. I responded, and she just about ripped my ear off with, ``I GOT A CRANE!''
Thus spring returned to Friendship Back River, and all other harbingers, once again, have been proved unreliable. A bluebird is a liar, and so is a tree swallow. They come the minute their urgings beguile them and just before it clouds up and snows another foot. Retreating, they are back in the Carolinas, far from Maine's rugged manners, and I suppose chirp and tweeter, silly-bird fashion, as if they had done something useful. In another six weeks, they'll show up here again along the rushing Medomak and Meduncook, where clammers are still waiting for the ice to go out. My wife, exuberant at seeing a mature blue heron back on our tidal estuary athwart the sink window, was inexact. Her crane was a blue (in the vernacular) her'n, which is not at all the same thing as a her - the fish.
(I remember years ago I told you-all about Taddy MacKay, the Nova Scotian who always brought smoked her sandwiches in his dinner bucket, and never anything else. His fellow workers on the job wondered how he could stand the steady sameness of his diet, and it got so, at last, that they would sit at another place and eat their own dinners apart. One day Shorty Prosser said, ``Taddy, why in the world don't you eat something else for a change - smoke her day after day! They's other things to eat!'' ``Like what?'' says Taddy. ``Well, like a cheese sandwich - why don't you bring a nice cheese sandwich?'' So the next day Taddy comes to the job, and he opens his dinner bucket to reveal a cheese sandwich - two hers and a slab of Halifax cheddar between.)
The first robin of spring hops about and isn't much better than the bluebird - or a snow bunting, for that matter. But we never see a great blue her'n until the March and April mud has dried - until there are worms here for the robins to seek and flies for the swallows to find. Until, indeed, the cricket frogs have clucked and the peepers are tuning up. You can believe a blue her'n.
Our Back River drains out completely with the ebb tide. When the tide turns and the first flow appears in the eel-rut, a blue her'n will come with it, standing on one foot waiting for, let's say, a smelt to dare. From the sink window this makes a great drama. The her'n may stand there on one foot until the incoming water has reached the hinge of his long leg. His beak will then go down and come up, and he will put down his up-leg, burst into stately flight, and find a new chance. Often the happy bird will wing over our little house, so from the kitchen window unemancipated housewife can see the smile on his face. This cheers her up and sometimes she bakes me a pie or may create some sugar cookies. The bluebird, I assure you, lacks this gift of inspiration.
Seeming to be alone as he stands on one foot in our Back River, the great blue her'n is really gregarious and a fine family man later in the season. Down the bay from our lobster-fishing port, several islands have long been heron nesting grounds. These islands remain uninhabited, and at least one, Wrack Island, is a no-no by state law. Common sea gulls nest nearest the salt water, laying their eggs on the ledges. Eider ducks make their nests under the bayberry and wild rose bushes, and with such proximity that a human can't walk without treading on eggs. The nests are so concealed with down that the no-trespass law is very wise.
But high overhead in the very tops of the pointed spruce trees, the blue herons have their rookeries, and in nesting season it is well worth the boat hire to ride down the bay and see the comical sight - staying, of course, offshore. The nests are substantial, of sticks, but the heron is not designed for perching on a high limb. Yet there they are, dozens of `em, from coves and gunkholes all around Muscongus Bay, male and female by families and flocks, waiting for the eggs to hatch. In nesting season we see few her'ns in our Back River. ``Nesting Season,'' we say, but a bit later the birds leave the rookery and disperse. They stay well into the fall and leave us when ice crusts around the edges. The bluebirds and robins are already long gone, and if we can get an honest blue her'n to work for us, we can pass up those lesser prophets.