By Florence Newman
My twenty-five-year-old nephew James, who lives in Olympia, Washington, had never been to nearby Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, so while I was visiting him in August, we drove out to walk the Estuary Trail and see what there was to see. Part of the refuge had previously been a farm: Farmer Brown (yes, really) had drained the land for cultivation by building dikes to keep out the waters of Puget Sound. In 2009, the dikes were torn down, allowing the brackish water to seep back in and creating a variety of natural habitats.
As we walked the out-and-back trail, we passed through grassland, marsh, and finally a barren waste of mud and shallow pools, punctuated by dead trees, their branches bone white and stretched sideways and skyward, like half-sunk skeletons imploring aid. James said the scene reminded him of a World War I battlefield. I had been thinking of Tolkien’s Mordor or the Dead Marshes, which were said to have been inspired by the author’s experience in the Great War, so we were on the same page, sort of. The last, long portion of the trail was a boardwalk supported by pilings out over the muck, and along it were interpretive placards, picturing and describing the different bird species we’d be likely to spot around us. With my aging vision, I wasn’t seeing much of anything, except for some distant grey blots that could have been geese.
At lunch earlier, James and I had been talking about Pokémon Go, the online game that is all the rage, where players use their smartphones to view and “capture” virtual creatures that pop up in assorted locations chosen by the game’s programmers, often local landmarks or public buildings. On a whim, I said, “I wonder if there are any Pokémon out here.” “I’ll check,” said James, pulling out his phone. After a few seconds, he smiled. “You know that placard back there, the one about the ducks? Well, there was a Flibbertigibbet sitting on it” (he didn’t say Flibbertigibbet, of course, but one of those equally silly made-up names given to the range of Pokémon characters). Maybe the Pokémon Go phenomenon is a good thing, if it gets people—especially young people—off their duffs and into the great outdoors. Still, the game makes unreal beings appear in places they don’t actually exist. That’s assuming one has the right equipment—a smartphone—to see them. Why hunt for something that isn’t there?
Towards the end of the boardwalk, little rivulets of tidewater from the Sound began to meander among the muddy plateaus, and the boardwalk itself curved closer to a spruce-covered shore, before ending in an octagonal pavilion looking out toward Puget Sound. Our surroundings started to seem less of a dead zone and more of a living realm, with ducks that paddled amid the moving glitter of sunlit streams and with a Great Blue Heron (finally a bird I could identify!) stalking minnows in the shoals, its shoulders hunched about its head in that way that always reminds me of Richard Nixon.
The pavilion had more interpretive placards explaining what could be seen in each direction and a big metal telescope affixed to the floor and meant to rotate, although it did so grudgingly and only within a limited range. For me, the device merely made blurry images blurrier. I was embarrassed to admit to James how few kinds of birds I could see, here in the beating heart of the wildlife sanctuary: with his keen young eyes he was no doubt taking in all those terns and teals that the placards told us were out there.
We were still at the gazebo, me squinting hopelessly first one way and then the other, when a group of guys approached down the boardwalk. There were four of them, middle-age men dressed in greens and browns—one of them in a khaki kilt, of all things, showing his hairy legs—and they were strapped and belted with gear, satchels and leather sheaths and binoculars. Best of all, however, they were carrying tripods that, when unfolded, turned out to be telescopes. Birdwatchers! They were truly Serious Birders, as became obvious as they immediately began ticking off the names of species as they sighted them—“Caspian terns on the left,” “A pair of dunlins,” “Sandpipers, mostly Western, but a few Leasts”—all in a casual, matter-of-fact tone (Serious Birders apparently don’t squeal and and jump up and down when they identify a specimen, at least not in the presence of other Serious Birders). I still wasn’t seeing much, but now I had a better idea of where to look.
One of the birdwatchers, the bearded one, mentioned an abandoned eagles’ nest on the forested shore. I must have blurted out, “Oh! Where?,” because the next minute he was pointing out which spruce and which side and which branch. When I remained oblivious, he trained his telescope on the nest and had me look through the scope at the ragged platform of interlaced sticks and tree limbs balanced high up in the spruce. The birder informed me sagely that the young eagles had fledged and flown some weeks earlier, and ( just to prove I wasn’t a complete idiot) I ventured a comment about the two bald eagles (George and Martha) that frequent our property on the Chesapeake Bay. Soon another of the men was showing James through his telescope an osprey perched on a stump at the edge of the Sound. Afterwards, I got my chance, standing on my tippy-toes so that he wouldn’t have to lower the scope to my child-like height. As I did so, I noticed a cell phone attached over the telescope’s lens, allowing him to take digital photos of what appeared, capturing proof that he’d really seen a bird when he added its name to his Serious Birder’s Life List.
Another party was making its way out the boardwalk toward the pavilion, this one including some actual children, so I suggested to James that it was probably time for us to be heading home. As we put the broad expanse of the estuary behind us—terns, teals, dunlins, osprey and all—I considered how lucky we were that those knowledgeable and generous birdwatchers had come along when they did. Another thought struck me: There could be real beings—in this case, real birds—existing in a particular place but not immediately apparent unless one has the right equipment—a functional telescope—to see them. What to call this phenomenon? Reverse Pokémon Go, maybe.
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.