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Secret Places

Secret Places

There are secret places in Napa. Clandestine corners. Chances are you pass several a day. They are homes, not visible. They look like something else. Their doors are shadows, or below the surface or over the edge or up there. Their spaces may not be defined by walls or even solidity. They serve lives from other perspectives and needs.

This is about one of those secret places, a Great blue heron rookery here in Napa. Someone directed me to its door this week. I found it and stepped through.

On the ground, driving by, on a road you are not likely to be on, in a remote place you not likely to be in, it seems to just be a Eucalyptus standing next to another. Unless you stop, and listen. Unless you look up. Then it becomes something else entirely.

My first visit was early evening and once the engine was off, it was a cacophony. The sound was kind of startling at first. Apparently happy hour had started. I saw there were a lot of nests. I counted 8 – two to three feet across and several inches thick, clearly visible. Huge wings spans gliding in, or spreading out and contracting suddenly, often extending past both sides of already large nests. I was impressed and more than a little awed. I tried to take pictures to capture it, but the right place to stand and the flow of the action eluded me. Everything was a partial something, so no keepers – that time

But I had reason to be nearby just after dawn the next morning and couldn’t stop from going again. This time is was almost quiet, with the graceful guide of incoming parents singular and discreet. Until the landings, which routinely erupted into loud commotion as the parent regurgitated food and the varying sized groups of chicks tore into it with open combat, sparing no quarter. To eat here, you fought for it. When the food was gone, the quiet returned. Until the next, and the next.

Over time, as these events occurred, I realized I had miscounted the nests. There actually were twice as many as I originally thought. While the first 8 were easily to spot once you were looking, others were invisible until I’d see huge wingspans get absorbed into or emerge from apparent nothingness. If you’ve even seen one of the “Predator” movie series (the first with Arnold), it was like when the alien hunter turned his cloaking on and off. Maybe seeing them required different places to stand that I couldn’t seem to find. Maybe.

I stayed there a long time, absorbed. I was allowed to take pictures this time. Then something seemed to happen. This was all in my head, I’m sure, but for what it is worth…

There was a moment when the quiet became more complete, and if it is possible, thicker. And then came a flash impression of another high perch atop a sheer rock wall, with other broad wings, leathery, opening, as they caught the sun and launched into the hunt. It was gone as quickly as it had come, but at the end, I found my eyes pulled to the top of the tree where an adult Great Blue sat at the highest spot. I had looked at it several times while I was there – and took pictures, but it had never looked at me, either out of tolerance or disinterest. Instead it stared stoically at some point in the distance only it could see. However, now it was looking directly – fixedly – at me. It didn’t make a sound, but I felt a question between us – imagined I am sure but still a keeper – “Can you keep this place a secret?” it seemed to ask and I answered (also in silence) – “Yes.” It held the stare for a second longer, then it turned back to its distant point. And I turned back to being a wildlife photographer, standing on the ground – but knowing why I’ve become one.