A woman with severe osteoporosis leaned across a rail fence in the arboretum, peering through binoculars at a brown bit of fuss on the leaf-covered ground, five yards from our feet. I stood behind her, trying to be quiet and motionless, squinting into the forest shadows. She lowered her field glasses and said, “I’m gone two weeks and everything changes. Who is this little fellow?” We agreed he was probably a sparrow, feeding on insects among the dead oak leaves and pine needles, but the shadows and his mottled coloration made naming the species difficult for a couple of ornithological dilettantes.
Further up the path we came to a wooden dock built into a marshy pond. The water was dense with lily pads and duckweed, and two turtles sunned on a half-submerged log. The water was the color of strong tea. At the end of the dock, a middle-aged couple stood with the theatrical stiffness that says: “Don’t move. You might scare it away.” In the weeds below the dock, gray as a Pacific Northwest sky, was a yellow-crowned night heron, the great blue heron’s homelier but still striking cousin. For fifteen minutes I watched the bird methodically make his way through the weeds, probably looking for fish or crawfish. I moved on when the family grew conspicuously impatient. I had never stood so close (six feet) for so long to so large a wading bird.
In another pond I counted fourteen turtles on one log. When we stood at the end of the dock, dozens of them swam toward us, apparently trained to expect lunch. I turned over stones and rotting logs in the woods, hoping to find worms or beetles, but Houston has been dry. I laid flat on the dock, leaned over the end and scratched a foot-long turtle on his head and the back of his shell before he dove. Edward Hoagland begins his best essay, “The Courage of Turtles,” like this:
“Turtles are a kind of bird with the governor turned low. With the same attitude of removal, they cock a glance at what is going on, as if they need only to fly away.”
Birds I enjoy; turtles I admire.