RICHMOND — We were going to see bald eagles, our Alaska tour guide said. But, at the edge of the river where our Zodiacs were waiting, the rain was thick, as torrential as the deluge which created a river in my garden last summer. The guide handed out rain suits, asked who wanted to wait on the bus, and smiled when no one was ready for that.
Even with all that gear, staying dry was impossible. The cameras were tucked inside the jackets until we were on the river and started to see the eagles. They were motionless, mostly dark, white-crowned statues looking as wretched as we felt. And they were everywhere, standing on the stone bars that stretched back and forth in the river.
The only thing harder than taking a safe, often close-up, shot was maneuvering the Zodiac in waters ranging from easy to too shallow. We kept on course, frozen as we got back to the bus, where the guide ventured that we had probably seen a hundred eagles.
“One hundred and forty-four,” said one of the women. We wrote that, wondering afterwards if she had really counted them. No one argued.
I keep track of birds seen over the calendar year and appreciate when volunteers fan out across the county to do their annual inventory of what’s around. They answer all the questions about whether we really have bluebirds, Canada geese, robins and herons in the winter (yes), and how many species are there, considering how many between them who went south in the fall.
The Hoffman Bird Club organized the count for my area and came up with 65 species, for a total of 6,418 birds. My list for 2022 stands at less than 40, including some outside Berkshire boundaries.
Parking the car at a Connecticut coastal park in January, for example, we immediately saw a bald eagle atop a large dead tree against a sky blue sky, posing for picture-perfect photos. We moved on to goldeneyes, loons, mergansers and black ducks, then came across a motionless woman with a long camera lens.
We knew not to speak. She pointed to the holly in front of her where a little owl, 6-7 inches tall, from head to toe, was nestled, facing us, motionless. It was a small owl, totally visible, but we would have missed it without the photographer.
Another woman came over and motioned for us to follow her to a nearby holly, where a second sharpening saw lay. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that the difference between anglers and birdwatchers is that birders always share and anglers never tell you where they found these beautiful brown trout.
Is that a wren in my bird feeder? It’s possible, but it’s most likely a female finch.
The excursion got even better when woman #2 took us to one of the tallest pines in the park to see two great horned owls, side by side. A real treat.
Back home, however, there was another special sight: two swans swimming in what the maps call Mud Pond, just off Route 41 in West Stockbridge.
Crane and Cranberry lakes feed the creek that flows under the road into the marsh-lined pond. On frequent trips to this town – for the store, for vanilla, for light bulbs and birdseed, for books and the bank – I kept seeing the two swans, sometimes three, in the stream or the pond. And I kept trying to take a picture with the cell phone. Knowing that it’s not legal to park on a state road made things difficult and brought about a new awareness of the patience it takes to be a photographer like Ben Garver and the late Walter Scott.
One day, no swans, but two big mounds of snow floating like icebergs in Mud Pond. So curious that I went back. It was the mute swans, their heads completely in the water, creating snowbergs. Six trips later, now taking a telephoto lens, even though I only got a liter of milk, the swans were on the west side of the road, swimming in the sun. I parked, took pictures with the real camera and drove home smiling. The milk and, finally, the photos.
The Hoffman Bird Club count in December listed four mute swans, but columnist Thom Smith’s list does not specify where. Bird books say that swans can be mean, even mug people, but as they glide across sky-blue water in a snowy landscape, they seem the epitome of peace.