by Hugh Gilmore
Years ago, early on a Sunday morning, I set out to take a birdwatching walk along a marshlands trail at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, down near the airport. I had been going there since high school, back when it was a quiet, simple place at the fringe of the city known as The Meadows – acres of open, undeveloped land surrounding the marsh. It’s now built up, with observation posts and boardwalks across the water and a popular place for family outings. I have had many moments of quiet, peaceful communion with nature at Tinicum.
Modern life being as it is, however, I hadn’t visited in a few years. And on this January day I’m describing, I was surprised when I drove through The Meadows. Tinicum was now bordered by dense housing developments and a few strip malls. The reserve itself now had a headquarters building. After parking I took the first trail, one that goes through some woods and then skirts the edge of the marsh. I hoped to ease through the tall grasses edging the pond and see coots and herons and geese and ducks going about their private lives.
Though the temperature was cool, the sun felt good on my neck and I was just starting to feel at home again when … what was that up ahead? Something … no, some things … had flashed across the trail. I crouched and stood still. Out they came out again. Three large dogs. Excited, eerily quiet, intent, moving fast, noses down on the scent, each cueing on the other. Feral dogs? Pets loosed from the housing developments? On the hunt? Rabbits? Deer? They were certainly big enough to run down a deer. Or me. But they wouldn’t bother me, would they?
They hadn’t seen me. What should I do? This wasn’t any time to argue the question of whether or not dogs are pack animals. I was too far from the parking lot. I walked calmly over to a point where the trail circled a small tree. I felt ridiculous, but I climbed 20 feet into the tree. A minute later the dogs hurried out of the grass, still silent, after some unseen thing. They crossed the trail I’d been on and disappeared again. Then all was quiet except for the sound of ducks on the pond quacking their mockery of me.
It stayed quiet. Nothing moved, except the tall brown grasses bending gracefully in the wind. Quite unexpectedly, after working all week, here I was, spending a Sunday morning, my leisure time, my “me” time, up a tree, waiting to see it was safe to come down. How could I know? Give it five minutes? Wait to hear the dogs baying from the distance? I waited. And waited. Thinking, am I a coward or an idiot? Or both? What kind of nature lover can’t handle three large dogs he finds running leashless in the marsh? What would Gary Cooper do in the movie version of my life as a birder?
Still waiting for my cue, I looked back down the trail I’d come from and saw: my deliverance! A man with binoculars casually walking my way. He was silver-haired, tall, and carried binoculars. I was about to call out to him, but thought, in a moment of random sanity, that he might think it odd to hear a voice from above him. Worse, he might think me strange. Afflicted all my life by concerns about what kind of first impression I might make on strangers, I held my tongue. But then, this might be the only rowboat coming by the flood-stranded rooftop I was on. I’ll speak, I thought … but what will I say? There wasn’t time for a speech, so I decided to be friendly, simple and non-threatening.
“Hi,” I called from above.
He stopped and looked around.
“Up here,” I said.
He looked up warily.
“See any dogs on your way?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “Why?”
I started climbing down, explaining in a clear and logical manner why I’d climbed the tree. He seemed more alarmed by me than the notion that possibly feral dogs were running through the marsh looking for prey. I asked if he would mind if I joined him on his walk. He cautiously said that was fine, so on we went.
We had a pleasant enough conversation as we walked the marsh perimeter but I sensed he was a bit dubious about my character – as though I were a bumbling assassin who’d perhaps planned to Clouseau-like drop on him from a tree, but had missed. Or maybe he expected to turn and see me wearing a red-ball clown nose. All in all, though, it was a good outing in that no one got attacked by feral dogs and we’d flushed a woodcock, an uncommon bird for Philadelphia.
The following week I called the Philadelphia rare bird telephone hotline. It said there was a green-tailed towhee, a stray from Colorado, at the Bucks County Audubon Society at Honey Hollow. This time I took the family. On Route 263, near 202, someone had posted a home-made sign: “Green Tailed Towhee – Park Here.” We did. Perhaps a dozen people were there. We all waited about ten minutes and then the towhee showed up at the Center’s feeder. Hooray, a new bird for my “life list” of birds seen The easy way this time.
Then I turned and saw about 10 feet away the same man whom I’d hailed from the tree last week at Tinicum. I went over. He remembered me and introduced me to his wife. We shook hands. I went back to my wife saying “That’s the man I told you about last week,” filled with chagrined amazement.
As we turned to leave, I heard his wife saying, “Oh, THAT’S the man you told me about.” Her tone sounded like he’d described me to her as though I’d stepped out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not – a genuine rara avis, indeed.
As I said, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. Sometimes doing something stupid is the smartest thing you can do, and sometimes acting smart can really make you look stupid. Context rules in this world of surprises.
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