There’s a fine line between life and death in the natural world, especially for the young and the sick and the old. To visit Ridgefield is to accept that you’re going to see some of your favorite creatures cross over that line.
A year ago in June I had planned to get up early and go to Ridgefield to take advantage of the forecasted rain. But it was a Saturday and I forgot to set my alarm for the weekend. I would have slept well into the morning but thankfully my wife woke me when she saw the wet weather and I scrambled up to the refuge.
As I drove through the trees beside Bower Slough a rock shivered beside the road. I pulled over and my little rock turned out to be a tree swallow fledgling that had fallen from its nest, soaked through and through on the cool and wet morning. I lay in the road and took a few quick pictures from a distance but knew better than to stay too long. Fledglings that fall to the ground are often still fed by their parents, so if they can avoid predators long enough they might survive. My immediate concern was more that it might succumb to the elements given how wet and cold it seemed, and even more that it would get run over since it was literally at the edge of the road.
I left the poor thing alone and walked up the road to see what other birds were out and about. On the walk back to the car a refuge volunteer pulled up and thought it would be best if the swallow was moved to a safer location, and asked if I could do it since I was already out of the car. I better understood her concern when I got back to the swallow, for the little bird had moved into the middle of the road.
I know firsthand the danger the little creatures of the refuge face on the road — later that day a car in front of me ran over a beautiful little red-spotted garter snake — but even so I wasn’t sure the best place to put the little swallow, as I couldn’t see a nearby cavity that could have been its nest. I gently picked it up and closed my hands around it to keep it calm. I was astonished by how light it was — intellectually I knew that birds were light, but since I normally don’t handle them I wasn’t prepared for just how light it was.
There was a low hanging branch on the other side of the road where the fledgling would still be visible to its parents, so I tried to ease the little bird onto the branch. But it panicked and jumped out of my hands, thankfully the tall grass below broke its fall and it was unharmed. Rather than risk another clumsy attempt I placed it back across the road where I first saw it. The terrified little swallow fell forward onto its chest and just lay there and I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t long for this world. Rather than terrify it any more I let it be.
As I got to the end of the auto tour, I couldn’t shake the image of the little swallow so I turned to go home. I couldn’t bear the thought of driving around again and finding out that it had died where I left it, or worse, that it had been run over. But my head overruled my heart and I turned back around and made another pass around the loop. At first I just hung around near Long Lake, but as I drove closer to the trees I got so nervous I just drove on without stopping until I got back to where I had left the swallow.
Why did this little bird affect me so? I’ve seen countless creatures die at the refuge — many at the hands of my beloved bitterns — so what made this swallow different? There is this: this little one I held in my hand. But it was deeper than that, given my mood at the time. With all the injustice in the world, why can’t this one little swallow live? With all the strikes against it, why not this one?
But my swallow was gone. Gone to a better place, I hoped.
A better place indeed. I laughed when I saw it had crossed the road and climbed up into the taller grass. Looking worse for wear but a far sight better than it had that morning. Better yet, there were bugs at the edges of its mouth that hadn’t been there before. Mom and dad were obviously still on task, so a few quick pictures and I continued on.
Better still, my little swallow was there the next morning, looking rather dapper now that it was fully dried and groomed. I saw it more during the day, with fresh bugs at the edges of its mouth, but on the last loop of the day it was nowhere to be seen. But I smiled when I saw an adult swallow with a mouthful of bugs plunge into the tall grass back further from the road.
I couldn’t see it, but I could guess well enough where it was.
Did it survive?
I wondered that as I walked under those same trees this weekend, almost exactly a year later, as a swarm of swallows swirled above and about me. Was my swallow one of the masses, returned from the south for another round of nesting, to raise young of its own?
I have no idea, but that’s alright. At least it had the chance.