Could you see a bird, just a black silhouette against slate gray sky and identify it as a chimney swift? Could you then see another bird (similar in size and flight), and be just as certain it's a barn swallow? Nope, me neither, but Herb Pearce can and did for the small group of bird enthusiasts who joined him for a bird song walk through Busa Farm and the Arlington Resevoir. The walk was sponsored by the Lexington Community Farm Coalition, a.k.a. LexFarm.
I wasn't sure quite what to expect when I arrived. I tend to avoid group walks, probably due to too many elementary school field trips where we were herded, bovine like, from place to place without any chance to explore what interested us. I decided to take a chance on this one, however; because I've always wanted to recognize birds by their song. I get a little better at it every year, but there are still so many to learn. It turned out that bird songs played a rather small role in our walk. Herb simply used them to help point us in the direction of interesting birds, but I learned so much about bird behavior and the plants I walk by every day, that I was anything but disapointed.
I was amazed at how unperturbed the birds were by our presence. As a kid my friends and I would race fearfully across the field that separated our houses, as swallows swooped and dove menacingly at our heads. Now here we were just feet from their nests, and though they arced and spun among the rafters, they took no notice of us. I now suspect those swallows of my youth weren't interested in us either. They were probably diving to catch insects, too small for us to note.
Here and there on the floor of the building lay evidence of the less idyllic side of bird life. Eggs had fallen from their clay cradles, either from an accidental push or during an attack from the neighboring house sparrows. These tiny brown creatures are surprisingly visious.
From there we made our way along the edge of the vegatable fields (where their pea plants were four times as tall as mine) to a spot where Herb had recently seen a family of robins.
Following the chirps of the juveniles, he lead us to where two siblings were following their mother and persistantly begging. As soon as a baby gulped down the worm the mama offered, it immediately began to beg again. I think all of us with experience around little ones of the human variety, felt for the mama bird and thanked heaven that kids' needs aren't so incessant.
A little further on one walker discovered a snapping turtle who appeared to have made her way from a nearby river to lay her eggs. She'd chosen the shadow of a hulking John Deer tractor as a secure site. Outside an aquarium, the only turtles I'd ever seen were tiny, adorable painted turtles. Aside from the shell, they look nothing alike. The snapping turtle was roughly a foot long, and at first glance resembled a rather flat boulder. Her tail looked lethal, all spikes and muscle like an aligator and her face came to a beak-like point. This creature appeared prehistoric. She was the image of latent strength.
Stumbling on that turtle was the start of something neat. The walk became less of a guided tour and more of a pooling of knowledge. One walker pointed out a nearby patch of pineapple weed. We all stopped to bend down and roll its golden flowers in our hands, breathing in its sweet citrusy scent. It smelled like sunshine and pina coladas, a world apart from the wet gray field where we stood. I've read that pineapple weed can be used to make tea, but I haven't tried it yet.
munched heartily on the succulent tops of lamb's quarters. This plant has a pleasant al dente feel as you bite into it, with a taste similar to spinach, only milder.
And then there was jewel weed. I was completely unfamiliar with it, so one of the walkers offered to demonstrate how it got its name.
This effect is caused by the interaction of the tiny hairs on the back of the leaf and the water in the puddle. Aside from being entertaining, the plant can also be used to combat the itch of poison ivy. A quick internet search later lead me to pictures of the plant's flowers and the realization that I've seen this plant all my life and had known nothing about it!
At the edge of the field farthest from the farm buildings, we encountered a pair of killdeer. These shore birds can often be found around farms. The two we met clearly had a nest nearby and were intent on drawing us away from it. One ran back the way we'd come, stopping to look at us now and again like, "Hey guys, what's the hold up? Come on!" The other moved toward us hobbling, its wings held out at an awkward angle as if broken. I'd seen this sort of behavior on documentaries, but never in real life. It was a fascinating act of bravery on the parents' part, serving as decoys. As much as we wanted to stay and watch, we moved on to save the birds from uneccesary distress.
A quick scramble over a rock wall, and we were on the trail that surrounds the Arlington Resevoir. I'd been to the Res about a year earlier, in the fall, and had found it a bit depressing. It was still in the center of town, with houses always visible, but this visit was entirely different. Herb showed us Jack in the Pulpits, the largest Poison Ivy plants I'd ever seen, and an entirely safe-to-the-touch plant that is nearly identical to Posion Ivy.
Do you see the differece? On this plant the center leaf starts really close to the other two. On poison ivy that middle leaf has a longer stem than the other two do. Please DON'T take my word for it. I'm just passing along what I was told, and it's always possible I misheard the explanation.
As we continued our route, Herb suddenly broke off from telling us about a plant and cocked his head. "Did you hear that? That's an orchard oriole!" With that he was racing toward the sound, his eyes raking the leaves overhead. Above us a bird, all rusty red and black sat singing among the leaves. A moment later it had taken flight and though we continued to look for some time, we never caught another glimpse. Herb explained that the orchard oriole is quite rare in this region. We probably would have missed it entirely if it weren't for its song, and most importantly Herb's recognition of it.
We continued on around the resevoir and back to the farm, but for me the walk ended with sighting that rusty minstrel. I was mentally overflowing with all that I'd seen and learned. What a great way to start a Sunday.