hunting at night and hiding in the bushes
by day, but downtown Oakland is mostly
paved, with few places to hide and fewer to
hunt. The lake, just blocks away, is impossibly distant for a bird on foot. When they
find a chick, Martin and Stern call the zoo,
which sends workers to pick up the young
bird and take it to the International Bird
Rescue in Fairfield.
We turn the corner and follow Martin
up the street toward a pair of ficus trees.
There is a thump. A night heron chick
lands in the street, splayed like the fossil
“Oh no, oh no!” Stern moans.
Martin runs back. “Hi baby, we’re going
to move you, okay?” she says. She wraps
the bird in her shawl and picks it up. It
squawks a little as she carries it to a thin
strip of grass near the post o=ice parking
lot. It’s fuzzy with speckled tawny down
and bluish legs; it looks even more absurd
than the adult herons. Its neck is broken.
After a second it stops moving, its eye
open, unblinking. Somewhere nearby a car
alarm goes o=.
Martin and Stern find another fallen
chick nestled in the roots of a ficus. This
one is alive and upright, although it
seems to be struggling to stand. When I
approach, it opens its beak wide and hisses
at me. Martin makes a call to the zoo, and
we retreat to a sliver of open sidewalk, a
bird-shit-free zone between the two ficus.
Then we just stand there and wait,
guarding the chick from people and dogs,
making sure it doesn’t run out into the
street. Above me, I can hear the birds rustling in the trees, the ack ack ack of the
night heron chicks, the garbley turkey
sounds of the snowy egrets, tree mates of
the herons. Occasionally there is the splattering noise of bird droppings hitting the
limbs and leaves.
I have never been robbed, but it’s not
uncommon in this area — after Martin and
Stern leave to return to work, it occurs to
me that standing alone on an abandoned
street with a camera around my neck is
something I would usually avoid. Down-
town Oakland is not always an ideal habitat
for people, either. It’s changing quickly—
new buildings are springing up around
town and new people (like me) are moving
in, turning it into the kind of place where
young, a=luent tech workers want to live.
Longtime residents are pushed to the sub-
urbs. Meanwhile, the third graders at the
Park Day School are petitioning the City
Council to make night herons the o=icial
city bird. I wonder if the birds will make
a fitting mascot in a way that the children
didn’t intend: When this nesting season is
over, many of the ficus on this block will
be cut to make way for new housing. The
herons will be among the displaced.
Finally, the zookeepers show up. One
approaches the baby with what looks like
a butterfly net, and the other gets behind
it with a cardboard box. When it’s old
enough, they’ll release it on Martin Luther
King Jr. Shoreline, where there are fish
aplenty and bushes to hide in. But when
the zookeeper attempts to put the baby
heron in the box, it snaps its beak and
yowls like it doesn’t want to go. A
Zach St. George is a freelance reporter living in
Oakland, California. He writes about science
and the environment.
WE SAW THE FIRST pinpricks of light,
fireflies sparking in the darkened bushes
and shrubs, from the deck above. The four
of us—my husband, Greg, myself, and
our friends Ti=any and Jason—had been
drinking white wine and talking, revel-
ing in the near miracle of a mosquito-free
night in Mississippi in late spring. From
my seat, I had the best view of the for-
est floor. “There’s more,” I said as a trio
of gleaming bodies floated past. “I see
We stood up and descended the stairs
to the pine-needle-slick trail behind the
house. I expected to see a dozen fire-
flies, perhaps as many as twenty. I grew
up in the South and have watched count-
less fireflies blink across yards like tiny
beacons. I usually catch sight of a single
insect flickering in the dark and track it,
trying to anticipate its lilting trajectory so
that I might enjoy the pleasure of seeing
it glow anew.
But this was di=erent. We found the
woods glittering. The fireflies were everywhere, strung about the understory like
hundreds of pure white Christmas lights.
They gilded the hillside as far as we could
see, down to the moonlit meadow below.
In the middle distance, they merged like
a river bearing candles on its current.
And these fireflies — Photuris frontalis —
flamed and dimmed in concert, pulsing
Scientists refer to this pulsing behavior as synchronous. The light show likely
plays a role in mating, but like so many
other quirks of the natural world, no one
really knows for sure. Until that evening,
I’d never heard of the phenomenon, and
later learned that many people who do
know about synchronicity mistakenly
believe that it’s limited to a celebrated
firefly genus in Asia — Pteroptyx — and
a lone species — Photinus carolinus — in
Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In reality, North America has a number
of synchronous species.
I wondered aloud how many fireflies
we could possibly be seeing; it looked as if
the night sky had inverted and blanketed
the earth with a twinkling galaxy. Jason
and Ti=any turned slow circles. They are
both population biologists, much better
qualified than I am to guess. At least seven
hundred, Jason said. Then he decided that