IT WAS A GLOOMY fall day. It wasn't raining, but the light was thin and the air was thick. I was walking alone around the northern tip of Seward Park in south Seattle a couple of weeks ago. I had the place nearly all to myself. Just offshore, I noticed a great blue heron perched on a white buoy—its head down and shoulders hunched, like a vulture guarding the entrance to some godforsaken realm.
Seward Park is a great place for watching birds. This peninsula pokes into Lake Washington like a crooked finger tickling an invisible chin. You can follow trails through its thick groves of old trees, stroll its open fields, or follow a paved perimeter that traces the water's edge for a couple of miles. From this trail—a stretch of which is an old road that was once a popular high-school cruising corridor back when it was open to cars—you can gaze across the lake at a number of vistas. On a clear day, the massive flanks of Mount Rainier are to the south, and on almost any day, you can eyeball the gold-coast compounds of Mercer Island to the east.
But a real attraction here is the bird life. I'm no bird nut, but there often is so much drama acted out in front of your eyes, it is impossible to ignore.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, a friend and I watched a bald eagle attack a formation of black, blunt-beaked coots that had bunched themselves into a kind of protective oil slick on the water. As the eagle dived, the water birds called out in a chorus and beat their wings to turn away the predator, something that seemed as effective as threatening to slap-box an armed mugger. After several dives, the eagle easily snatched one bird and injured another. The survivors swam off quickly in their feathered flotilla, leaving their crippled colleague behind, the proverbial sitting duck for when the predator returned for a second course.
And then there is the small flock of bright green and red tropical parrots who live in the park. How miserable they look in wet winter weather, clinging to the drooping Doug fir branches, their gorgeous feathers made the color of dark mildew by the damp. My bird book says such exotics—often escaped pets—never breed, but this population does. Somehow they've survived both the cold and the harassing crows. When I first saw the parrots, I took them to be the squawking harbingers of climate change. I wonder if they're at all happier during this weirdly warm and dry fall, or if they've lived here long enough to have the same sense I do, that things are slightly off.
Another day, I stumbled onto the roundup of Canada geese by government wildlife workers who are trying to thin the population of this once-rare (around here, anyway) bird that many people think has overstayed its welcome and become a pooping public nuisance. I watched as a couple of dozen were herded into a cage, then stuffed into the back of a pickup truck that had been turned into a mobile gas chamber. I will never forget the sound of those geese dying in the back of that truck, the muffled thumps as they threw their bodies against the metal walls to escape, the panicked honking that faded to silence as the gas did its work.
THAT ISN'T THE only time that man has been part of the dramas I've witnessed, nor the creepiest. Which brings me back to the great blue heron. As I rounded the point closer to the bird, I heard the buzz of a Jet Ski. I saw it racing toward the buoy. I couldn't make out who was driving it, just that it was a wet-suited stick figure of a man. He almost rammed the buoy, and the giant gray bird lurched from its perch in fright. The Jet Skier turned sharply—almost 90 degrees—and began chasing the heron close on its hanging heels.
Herons are huge solitary birds known mostly for their stillness. In flight, they help you better imagine what living with pterodactyls would have been like. They fly in a slow, graceful motion on wide prehistoric wings. This heron was barely able to outrun the Jet Ski and seemed to have trouble gaining altitude. The Jet Skier chased it around the lake, turning to follow every time the heron changed course. The bird finally got high enough off the water so that it would not be run down, but it soon looked like it might collapse from exhaustion. The Jet Skier persisted in chasing it for at least a quarter of an hour. At one point, the panicked bird turned back toward shore. As they came near, I heard a sound over the noise of the engine. It was the tormentor imitating the terrified bird: "Caaaaawwwww, caaaaawwww," he mocked.
Eventually, he gave up and the heron escaped. I felt incredibly helpless standing on that shore with no bird cop to call, no Jet Ski of my own to give chase. All I could do was imagine being a bald eagle to that Jet Skier's coot, piercing his sadistic little heart with my fierce talons. Then that bird drama would have had a happy ending.