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FIELD JOURNAL ENTRY
NOTABLE LOCATION: SARIG POND
LIFE LIST ENTRY 3,284: WHITE-WINGED TERN
Never let them see you sweat.
That’s not the Birdscout motto. But it fucking well should be.
“Who can tell me three of the feathered friends we might find on our walk today?” I said.
Sixteen pairs of eyes stared back at me, wide and unblinking.
Homeschoolers. Unschoolers. Some kind of schoolers that meant they weren’t in the overcrowded gray-and-red brick elementary building seven blocks away and were instead standing at the entrance of the Sarig Pond and Jenkins Wood Nature Sanctuary with me. I thought home-non-unschooling would make them wild, free nature lovers … but no. Most of them were looking at their smartwatches, secretly texting one another.
“Okay, who can tell me one creature we might find today?” I tried again.
“Um,” a tiny girl with cat-eye glasses said. “A squirrel?”
I sighed. Unfortunately she was right. Squirrels were the bane of birders everywhere. (Well. Except maybe in places where there were no squirrels, which were sadly limited.)
“Good guess!” I said.
She grinned. It’s best to encourage the little ones. They were prone to unpredictable sudden movements that could veer off the path and ruin your day. Best to keep them on your side. “Can anyone guess a creature with wings?”
“Robins?” another boy tried in a bored voice.
“Yes!” My fist shot into the air. “Sweetest of songbirds! Harbingers of spring! Portents of luck and fortune!” Those last two were debatable at best, but sometimes you needed to finesse bird symbolism in order to win a tough audience. A few heads swiveled my way at that, so I felt I’d made the right choice for the greater good.
“Really?” the bored boy asked.
“You bet. Birds bring messages of all sorts to humans. But there are way more interesting things about them than that. They have their own language to communicate. They can fly hundreds of miles and never get lost. They fight for what’s theirs. They are warriors.”
“Cool,” the boy said. “Do you think we’ll see some of those smart ones?”
I smiled to myself. It only takes one to turn a crowd. “Why, yes,” I said, peering at the nametag slapped on his fuzzy lapel, “Isaac. I do. Follow me.”
Six cardinals (two female, four males), two nuthatches, sixteen (give or take) common grackles, three red-bellied woodpeckers, and one red-tailed hawk later, I delivered the kids back to their adults.
“Feel free to take some pamphlets on your way out,” I called. “Nature story time starts on May 30!”
I retreated into the tiny, cramped office of the Birdscout Nature Center and sunk into a chair. Birding with the unenthusiastic could fucking wipe a girl out.
“Oh. Hey,” said a voice. I looked up to see a familiar shock of dyed hair shaved into a crest peeking through the door. “If it isn’t the Birdscout-in-chief. Is Jerry in?”
“Out sick today,” I said. “Risa. Your hair…,” I started.
“What about it?” she said. I could hear a warning in her voice.
“It reminds me of a wire-crested thorntail.”
Risa’s face broke into a grin. “You got it! Of course you are the only one who noticed. I love them.”
“They are exquisite,” I agreed.
Risa and I looked at each other for a moment. It was odd that we were having this conversation, since it wouldn’t be precisely accurate to call us friends. We were more … what?
We were one hundred percent enemies.
But sometimes, even enemies had great hair.
I watched Risa’s expression change as she seemingly remembered our actual affiliation at the same time I did. “Okay, well, if you see him sometime soon, tell him I need him to sign my co-op hours sheet.”
“Okay. Will do.”
She paused, like she almost wasn’t going to speak but then changed her mind. “Have you finalized your entry yet? For the photo contest?”
“No. You?” I said.
“No. I tried to get a picture of the heron but then I tripped on a root,” she said.
“Right? Such a rookie mistake. But I bet everyone around here is going to turn in a fucking heron anyway. Or, god help us all, warblers.”
Heat crept up my back. I had no fewer than twenty-three shots of our four resident herons (male and female) that I was considering entering into Fauna magazine’s annual Junior Nature Photographer competition. Not to mention several dozen shots of a Cape May and one of a male Swainson. That last one turned out blurry, fuck me, because of course the Swainson flitted out of the frame. This was my last shot to win the Fauna competition (since I’d be too old next year), and I wanted to conquer first place so badly I could practically taste it. The money would be nice, and my grandma (a former winner herself) would love the free lifetime subscription (added to the prize since her time).
But because Fauna was the biggest and best birding magazine in the US (possibly the world, save maybe Le Bec in France), the bragging rights alone were worth it.
Particularly if it meant I’d beaten Risa, who I was pretty certain sabotaged my entry last year.
“Yeah. Probably. But the summer birds will be here before you know it. And there are some impressive blooms in Jenkins Wood. There is already a patch of Monotropa uniflora at the base of Elder Oak. It looks like a proper fungus graveyard. Bet it’d be epic in moonlight at the right angle.”
“Are you going for that shot?”
“I tried. It just looks stupid. The flash washes it out and using moonlight through branches isn’t exactly my forte.”
Risa snorted. “I hear you. Okay. Well. Good luck.”
She almost sounded like she meant it. I stared at her absolutely rockin’ hair as she left.
I tidied the desk and took a bunch of Ranger Jerry’s old newspapers to the upcycling bin. The weekend craft people would have a field day Mod Podging on Saturday. I surveyed my work with satisfaction. I was once again reminded how grateful I was for my co-op assignment (even if Risa was there, too). I had always envied the juniors, who were allowed to avoid going to school for all but a few hours on Thursdays during spring term because of their work/volunteer co-ops in years past, but now it was my turn. It had been the best development of my life thus far. Most of my friends were out at the local newspaper or lawyer’s or doctor’s offices and made more money than me. Because my life goal was to be the world’s best nature photographer and take my place aside my hero, master birder Brian Michael Warbley, spending April till August leading nature walks and birding tours was way more my speed. Even if the pay was technically shit.
Like, literally. Jerry gave me a bag of fertilizer for Gran’s garden to compensate me. But it was the best stuff we’d seen and we needed it for her bird-attracting flowers, so I wasn’t too salty about it.
I rounded the pond on trash removal detail, but my phone buzzed in my pocket. Elder Oak. Sixty paces due east! Now! the text from Gran read. I was still technically on the clock, but Jenkins Wood was part of my work space and I could always pick up garbage along the trail to make seeing Gran official business if needed.
Be right there. Don’t leave! I texted back.
You know I’ll always wait for you, Laurel.
I grabbed my camera, locked the Birdscout Center door, and jogged as lightly as I could around the wooden decks surrounding the pond to the woodland paths. I nodded to Elder Oak, the oldest tree and guardian of the entrance to Jenkins Wood, and tried to make my way as quietly as possible sixty paces east through a rough path covered in dew-wet leaves. I picked up a few discarded wrappers along the way, darkly noting that they probably came from the awful Birdie Bros (a group of dude birders who had terrible nature manners matched only by their preternatural ability to get rare warbler shots).
Copyright © 2019 by Adrienne Kisner