Sunday, February 12, 2012
When I first spotted the bittern, it was doing what bitterns do best—pretending to be dead grass. He stood with his whole body perpendicular to the water, beak pointed skyward, neck snaking as though windblown. Walt stopped the car and reached for his camera as I kept my eyes glued on the bird. In previous sightings in the exact same location, I've lost him as he melted into the foliage that is both his home and his protection. On this day, it seemed we humans must have blended into the surroundings, because he released his camouflage pose and began to hunt.
He lifted a long leg from the mucky canal water, prepared to move forward. I was surprised and delighted to see the exact green of spring grasses pushing their way through the dead matting of winter. The contrast with the rest of him couldn't have been stronger: Feathers all shades of brown that matched perfectly both the curling desiccated grass blades and the shadows created by the muddy bank backdrop. Beak an invisible extension of the streaking. Eye like a clear rain drop clinging to a single sere stem.
We watched him eat a frog, poke around looking for more, lift first one glorious green grass leg and then the other as he moved along the bank.
I knew how easy it would have been to miss seeing him at all. Either in his initial camouflaged pose or in the more open hunting presence we enjoyed for such a long time. It was just the smallest of odd movements that caught my eye.
Much like the coyotes we spotted on the same day, or the roughskin newt I almost stepped on during my walk yesterday—designed to blend in, to be inconspicuous, to not be found. But the blending isn't a perfect art. As long as the creature is perfectly still (or perfectly imitating some other motion), it is nearly impossible to spot. But perfect stillness is unsustainable, even though it's the safest way to be. Movement invites death in the form of predators. Movement also brings life in the form of food.
How often do we hold ourselves as still as possible? Or choose to imitate the waving of dead grass? Looking for safety. Reluctant to brave open spaces that offer life and death in the same hand. How many of us die in the safety of last year's grass, becoming that which we only meant to hide within?
I'm pretty sure the bittern, the coyote and the newt are unaware of their camouflage. They act to preserve themselves, but don't hide to avoid pain. They move forward into life, driven by unquestioned forces, accepting what comes, each moment a lifetime lived fully.
Photos by Walt Shucka