January is usually a month for puffy coats and fuzzy socks, but on an abnormally warm afternoon last week I headed out to White Clay Creek with nothing more than a light sweatshirt. This felt bizarre since just a few days earlier it was 50 degrees colder and I was wearing two pairs of pants to class – nevertheless I welcomed the warm day with a bike ride to a rocky nook where I could sit alone in nature. The only things I brought with me to my locus of observation were my backpack (containing my all-purpose green notebook, a pen, my digital camera, and a water bottle) and the expectation to “see lots of nature” and to be “isolated from the city of Newark.”
Almost immediately after settling into my spot by the river, however, I realized my expectations were farfetched. After all, the area of White Clay Creek where I sat was a rare site of natural land that had not been consumed by the city, just a few minutes walk away from the University of Delaware’s campus. In the distance, across the river and through the naked trees, I could see the rooftop of a new apartment building being constructed; I could hear that construction happening, as well as the train clacking its way through town, the aggressive vroom of a car speeding down a side street, and the cries of firetruck sirens. Each of these unnatural sounds pulled my attention away from listening to the geese squawking downstream, hearing the breeze blow through the trees, observing the way the water was rippling around the remaining ice chunk left behind from the colder weather. And even after shutting out those distractions, I grew disappointed to notice that I was not seeing any wildlife – not a bird nor Newark’s notorious squirrels paid me a visit by the river.
I spent about an hour observing my surroundings and taking notes before the sun began to set and the January chill came back to the air. I was disappointed that “nothing” had happened, but I reminded myself that watching the river flow by had been a sort of meditation and surely enough to conjure inspiration for a journal entry. As if the woods could hear my disappointed thoughts, it responded with a bird call that was louder and unlike any that I had been hearing for the last hour – sparking my curiosity and desire to see some form of wildlife. Surely this bird was close to me, but as I looked in the trees upstream and down everything seemed to blend together in the perfect camouflage of brown with no sign of a bird. I heard a splash in the water downstream, assuming a passerbyer threw a rock into the creek, but to my surprise when I turned my head towards the splash I saw a bright blue bird flying back into the tree!
I was very excited, noting my observation of a single Blue Jay in my notebook, and at the same time very intrigued. I’ve heard people say Blue Jays have a mean reputation, but I didn’t know they dove into cold water in search of food in the wintertime. I also knew what a Blue Jay call sounded like but this bird sounded different – “was it a male trying to defend its territory?” I wondered. It was less like a Blue Jay call and more of a series of quick (and loud) chirps. I took my camera out hoping to capture a shot from my first birdwatching outing of the new year, but this bird was extremely elusive. After a few failed attempts at photographing this bird I wanted to quit, but I was determined to get proof of this experience. I remained silent with my finger on the shutter, waiting for the bird to sit still for a lucky moment. Once I finally captured his picture and zoomed in, realizing it wasn’t a Blue Jay at all. This bird had a different sized head and beak, and a stripe of red between its blue wings and white breast that I couldn’t have possibly seen without zooming in with my camera. “Maybe it wasn’t a Blue Jay, but could it have been a woodpecker?” I wondered on my bike ride home, satisfied that the woods provided me with this puzzle. After some research, I found the true identity of this bird was the Belted Kingfisher, an uncommon bird in the area with a call that was identical to the one I was hearing in the woods.
Identifying a Belted Kingfisher is one lesson I learned from this trip to the river, but a more important lesson I took from this experience was to exercise patience more in my daily life. I needed to remain patient in order to capture a picture of the elusive bird (with that being said, bird photographers deserve all the respect), and had my agitation gotten the best of me I may have left early, completely missing out on this experience with nature. If wilderness truly is the salvation of the world, like Leopold concludes in the passage Thinking like a Mountain, then patience is one of its lessons we (humans) must relearn. Living in our culture where we can be satisfied by instantaneous action it can be easy to expect everything to happen when we want to to happen, but we must remember that some things take time – the bird isn’t going to come because you want it to come and it won’t sit still for you to take its picture, but if you can tap into your calmness you can learn to enjoy the wait.