I live in an urban world of row houses and sidewalks in Washington, D.C. Cars roll by, police sirens wail, construction crews arrive at 8 a.m. I shop in a market with narrow aisles and midget grocery carts. A long, skinny backyard, consisting of an enormous dogwood tree, an even-taller tulip poplar, evergreen shrubs, and shade perennials, is my primary contact with nature.
Thirty years ago, the block was nearly all Czechoslovakian émigrés and was known as Little Prague. Their Old World etiquette sanctioned friendly greetings to neighbors in the front yards and a "don't speak unless spoken to" policy in the back. Perhaps it stemmed from the fact that their rear fences were extremely low and privacy was in short supply.
Abiding by this rule, I never exclaimed "Are you completely out of your mind?" while I watched my neighbor Dan put up four miniature silos on poles in his backyard and fill them with birdseed. A fifth silo quickly followed, and by the end of the month he had installed suet feeders, a cement birdbath, and a tiny perch for hummingbirds. The yard was a strip mall for birds. Since Dan had displayed no previous leanings toward ornithology, this fervor puzzled me.
It took several weeks for the birds to recognize their bonanza, but then they arrived en masse. Hundreds of nondescript brown birds, with a few starlings and doves thrown in. I awoke at dawn each spring morning to the sound of crows, and I kept thinking of those ominous flocks on phone lines in Hitchcock's "The Birds." On the other hand, my cat, a fierce ex-alley type from Queens, knew unbounded happiness at the Bird Center. It became her place of employment where she lolled and rolled, swatting toward the sky, mice and voles left far behind.
One morning as I sat at the kitchen table, chin in hand, I glanced up from the paper to admire the exploding rhododendron outside the door. Instead, what stood on the patio, a full four feet of majestic glory, was a great blue heron.
Mirage? No, this was the real deal. A pale gray body with long skinny legs, an elegantly crooked neck, white tufted head, and yellow beak. The last time I'd seen one was on the swamp tour out of New Orleans, and here was one practically begging for my breakfast. To share my glee I called a neighbor who is a nature lover.
"Hey, Kelly! You'll never guess what's on my patio!"
"What's that?" he asked with amiable curiosity.
"A great blue heron!" I proudly announced as if chosen by powers on high.
"My gosh, he's after my fish!" exclaimed Kelly, whose tiny backyard pond was filled with koi, a pricey alternative to goldfish. He rang off. At that moment the heron lifted off and headed straight toward Kelly's fish. From my window I saw Kelly race out, flapping his hands, which proved a successful technique for diverting heron.
I figured I'd share my find with Dan who, after all, had created the Bird Center. Also, I couldn't help feeling smug that this enormous specimen had landed in my yard instead of his. Proximity to ponds had trumped birdseed.
"Oh yeah," said Dan, decidedly unimpressed. "I've seen that heron near Rock Creek down by the zoo."
This observation raised some questions for me. I had assumed that herons preferred places like Chincoteague and the Eastern Shore to D.C., but this one could be a maverick - a clever bird who had forsaken the lowland waters for easy pickings in yuppie koi ponds. Maybe it camped out at the zoo and hunted ponds by day. Should I call the zoo to ask if they'd seen a great blue? I did what any rational city dweller would do under the circumstances. I called a friend up the street who had a parakeet. Surely Pam would have some insights into winged behavior.
But she, too, remained stolid when faced with my enthusiasm. "That heron must live around here, because I always see it when I jog past the zoo."
I felt like the failed president of the blue-heron fan club. No wonder birders stuck together, crawling around at dawn.
On a very ordinary morning a month later, the heron flew past my kitchen window. If I hadn't looked up at just that moment I would have missed it. This time, the bird staged a successful koi attack before disappearing.
Despite my hopeful watch, there have been no more heron sightings. Perhaps the bird tired of its stint in the city and returned to wilder waters. I'd liked knowing a heron was in the neighborhood. That elegant bird was a messenger, a pleasant reminder that my yard isn't contained by walls and fences but participates in a bigger natural world. It is a small space but still a foothold. Earthbound, I wait patiently for another glimpse of the wanderer. Some days I'm even tempted to dig a pond.