For The Birds

Seven Heron Sunday, or Egrets, I’ve Had a Few

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For the birdsBy Brian Kluepfel

A gray aspect to a dreary October Sunday that feels more like winter than fall: a drizzling rain, a biting western wind moves sodden clouds and even puffs of fog. You don’t want to get up at 6 a.m., or even 7, yet we do.  

Trudge down to the Ossining Metro-North station and hop on the 8:35 northbound, through Croton-on-Hudson, Manitou, Peekskill and other sites of Washington Irving’s or Thomas Cole’s pen and paintbrush imaginations. Plastic bags keep us warm as we doze; there’s little time or interest in sightseeing on the “to” leg of the journey.  

Yellow school buses at the Beacon station ferry us over to St. Patrick’s parochial school, where we spend another uncertain hour wandering beneath crosses and basketball banners, wondering about how much to drink (hydrate, in runner-speak) or eat, and when to venture out in the rain. It’s a lot of thinking for a five-mile race.  

We finally go out and pound down the main street of Newburgh, a crazy patchwork quilt of colors, ages and shapes zooming past early church-goers and earlier vagrants. Turning left past some picture-book homes flanking the water, we take to the bridge and test our flimsy running shoes on the iron grated pedestrian walkway, a feat of human engineering decades old. It’s humid, it’s windy and it’s high; my vertigo allows me to look down into the choppy waters just three times, each glance moving me closer to the cars, not the edge.  

Arriving in Beacon less than 44 minutes after I began, I point to a fellow runner: look, there’s a great blue heron on the water. We were so worried about running, we paid him no mind. My friend nods in thoughtful agreement.

Minutes later I’m greeted by my lovely running companion Paula, and then my good friend Kevin, and together we admire this beautiful slate grey bird – four feet tall, six-foot wingspan, outstanding black plumes sticking out its head – as it nabs a fish and struggles with it in its beak until flying to the nearby sandy shore. We surmise that here the fish has less chance of escape, and the lingering gulls less chance of taking it away.  

A brief conversation about how this sort of birding moment takes me out of the humdrum ensues. We then lunch. Kevin kindly delivers us to the 2:04 headed back home, where we grab a window seat amongst a cattle car of Gotham-bound passengers who’ve waited out the morning weather and are ready to celebrate big-city pre-Halloween.  

I look eagerly into the river, flush with the excitement of the race (I beat my hoped-for time), the wonderful, hot food and stellar companionship. Between Beacon and Cold Spring, the next stop, I count four more great blue herons, all, I surmise, drawn to fishing by the turbulent water of today. Four in one quick take.  

Then, further along the river, I see one, and then another. I keep pointing them out to Paula, who hardly believes me. They’re gone by the time she looks, with the train’s speed. Yet they are there.  

Then, nearing Croton, a stop from home, I look away and Paula points excitedly: two magnificent bald eagles are flapping across the inlet between Croton Point and the “mainland.” The immense wingspan means they could be no other bird. My novice birder girlfriend has shown me something I’d have missed altogether.  

There it is: Sunday afternoon birding from the west window of Metro-North. Many reminders of a common, yet spectacular bird, our stately great blue heron, and then a star appearance by the national symbol, just hanging out, but likely in search of a snack. too.

The people around us, sheltered in their earbud wonderment, probably never saw a thing.  

Brian Kluepfel writes travel guides for Lonely Planet and is a member of the Saw Mill River Audubon (SMRA). He encourages anyone to get involved with SMRA virtually or in person or through events such as expert Allan Wells’ long-legged wading birds of Southern New York via Zoom on May 25.

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