14 October 2009

Lunch with an Egret

Feeling cooped up and agitated, I went out for a recuperative walk. Watching this Snowy Egret taking lunch in the stream, and playing tag with it to get a photo, took my mind off malfunctioning drawing pens and unwelcome correspondence. This angelic looking bird, standing three feet tall, was feeding itself in the part of the Wang Tong Stream which had been turned into a concrete ditch, and that cheered me up.

This section of the stream was once a creek meandering past banks of tall grasses, swarming with dragonflies, fish, crabs, frogs--and of course snakes--and was therefore a bountiful feeding ground for birds. Then the government turned it into a box-shaped channel of dead grey concrete. But nature proves its tenacity. Here and there twigs blow into the channel and catch on irregularities in the concrete. Leaves and other organic debris get caught on the twigs, rot, and turn into compost. Small aquatic plants start to grow, and algae blooms in the warm, slow-moving water. Then miraculously, from somewhere, guppies and tiny crabs appear. Maybe their eggs fall in the rain.

And then it's lunchtime for egrets, moorhens and the occasional Chinese heron.

A couple times a year some civil servant decides that all that messy mud and green stuff is spoiling his view of immaculate, unblemished concrete. So the cleaning crews come in with enormous brooms, sweep away the entire ecosystem, and the channel dies. But not for long. It takes only a couple months for the cycle to repeat itself, and the big birds return.

We've been seeing a lot more egrets and herons in Wang Tong. Their numbers have increased steadily for the past five years or so. They're often seen in trees or on tall bushes in the ginger field, probably stalking frogs and lizards. They used to raid our neighbor Kedo's carp pond until she finally gave up on restocking it. The birds don't nest here, but it's a cheerful sight to see them enter the valley in the morning, circle in holding patterns, then stretch their wings into a stall before landing straight down and spending the day.

I have mixed feelings about seeing egrets in Wang Tong. This isn't their ideal hunting ground. The stream fish are small, and the pickings in the field can't possibly match those of the mangroves and coastal swamps where they normally flourish. The fact that we're seeing more of them can only mean that they're losing better quality habitats up and down the China coast. No prizes for guessing why that's happening.

It would be nice to think that the coastal environments which have been spoiled by industry, development and effluents might recover as robustly as our little stream. If the egrets stop coming to Wang Tong, I'll hope for the best.

On the other hand, I think I'd worry even more.

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