Egrets and herons and geese, oh my

The quick rustling in the cattail reeds and marsh grass at the edge of the pond put me on alert. The sudden beating of powerful wings and a loud, clacking kuck kuck kuck sound startled me nevertheless.

"What is it, a wood duck?'' asked my companion, whose view of the bird was blocked by the thick stand of trees it flew into.

"No, the neck's too long,'' I said, maneuvering for a better look.

The insistent kuck kuck kuck continued, the bird obviously trying to lure us away from a nest it thought we might disturb. That's when it raised the shaggy crest on its dark head, a sharp contrast to its white throat, chestnut-colored neck and bluish-green back.

Ah, ha. A green heron.

No wonder I love playing golf.

The site of this none-too-frequent sighting was the Brunswick Greens Golf Club, a little upstate topographic gem just outside Troy, NY, not far from the Hudson River. But, it didn't have to be. As a gypsy golfer who plays only sporadically and belongs to no particular club, I've been privy to observing wildlife on numerous courses in the area.

Given my particular level of play -- sub-par in the truest sense of the phrase -- I've also had many opportunities to go thrashing about in woods, ponds, swamps and undergrowth in search of an errant ball. It's amazing how many snakes, rabbits and chipmunks a clumsy golfer can flush out of hiding, along with the occasional skunk.

But there is nothing like simply watching, without disturbing, golf course wildlife.

On the day I saw the green heron, my buddy and I sat sipping cool drinks after a round of destroying golf balls but not our self confidence.

As our gaze swept over the rise and fall of the course, taking in the views of lush green grass and stands of paper birch, dense pines and maples, towering red oaks and fernlike black walnut, a majestic white bird swooped low over a pond barely 50 yards from us.

It touched down like a feather, its brilliant white plumage and long, thin black legs in sharp contrast to the manicured emerald grass. It was a great egret, often mistaken for the snowy egret but differentiated by its black feet compared to what bird watchers refer to as the snowy's "golden slippers.''

The slender, stately creature extended its neck toward the water, then gently stepped into the pond, causing barely a ripple. The hunt for food was on as nature maintained its eternal rhythm despite the staccato tsss tsss tsss of an oscillating sprinkler and the occasional cries of golfers alternately cursing and cheering their shots.

These solitary waders are in sharp contrast to that most prolific of wild birds, the Canada goose.

You don't have to be on a golf course to spot the muscular 12-15 pound honkers that drop off the Atlantic Flyway migratory path to winter here, but it is on those courses they display a particularly belligerent attitude, helped along by their strength of numbers.

I recall one early autumn afternoon I was leisurely tracking down an errant 3-iron shot near a large pond.

Off in the distance I heard a soft, thrumming sound. As I zeroed in on its source, I realized it was a wave of Canada geese maneuvering for a pond landing.

Fluttering wings extended above them, they were aiming straight down. As they hit the surface the slapping sound of webbed feet on water was like a muffled orchestra percussion section, supplying the meter for this aerial ballet.

No sooner had they landed and paddled to one end of the pond, a second wave came in. Then a third. And, finally, a smaller fourth wave of stragglers that had formed up overhead as the stronger flyers took care of business down below.

It was an elegant, inspiring sight that stopped all the golfers in their tracks to watch as the rays of the late afternoon sun bounced off the smooth feathers and rippled water, adding accents to the tableau.

The euphoria such unexpected simple pleasures can inspire was, however, short lived. By the time I found my ball, most of the geese had exited the pond in search of food and had surrounded the ball.

As I stood knee-deep in honkers, unable to swing my club too far for fear of striking one of them and prompting retribution from the notoriously grumpy birds, I wondered if the experience was worth the trouble.

But the day I saw the green heron brought back memories of so many such outings that I knew, of course, it really was no trouble at all.
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