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Happy bird-day, dear Thoreau
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My husband wanted two things for his birthday. He wanted a blueberry pie, and to photograph birds at a rookery.

We spent much of last Wednesday crouched at the edge of Woody Pond in Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.

When I was eighteen I read Thoreau’s "Walden." Mr. Thoreau, of course, spent endless hours learning natural history by watching wildlife.

A Concord farmer once recounted that Mr. Thoreau stood all day beside a little mud pond. At supper-time, the farmer finally called out, "David Henry, what air you a-doing?" Without turning his head, Thoreau reputedly replied, "Mr. Murray, I’m a-studyin’ the habits of the bullfrog."

"The naturalist accomplishes a great deal by patience," Thoreau wrote, "more perhaps than by activity. He must take his position, then wait and watch."

I’m a poor ornithologist, but I love identifying birds and watching their behavior. What they offer me is beauty and wonder.

Harris Neck is a 2,824-acre refuge located in McIntosh County. During the 1800s it was used for growing sea cotton, until the tilth was exhausted. An African-American community thrived at Harris Neck until World War II, when the land was condemned and taken by the government in order to build an airfield. After the war ended, the property became a wildlife refuge.

Woody Pond is a human-made impoundment that has become a vital rookery for the endangered wood stork, as well as other wading birds and waterfowl.

From the dyke, we watched hundreds of birds roosting, feeding their young, learning to fly, and engaging in other behavior we did not understand. Why, for example, would two dozen night herons suddenly abandon perches in the willows, en masse, and fly out over the pond? Why would two white egrets chase a little blue heron for an hour?

We saw white ibis, anhinga, green heron, great egret, and moorhen. We saw young cypress stuffed full of fledglings. We saw an alligator lounging in duckweed below that cypress.

My husband saw his first painted bunting ever, and if you’ve never seen one, you should go a-looking. The buntings are migrants, here for the summer, and exquisitely colored - red, green, blue. The field guide calls them gaudy.

All day I felt like Thoreau. In a way, since he was born July 12, we were celebrating his birthday too.


Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, is compiling a life list of birds she’s seen.

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