As if they already don’t do enough: ‘Conserve Today and Secure for Tomorrow’

Didn’t need to get very far into a facebook “conversation” for Anne Thatcher Parrish to comprehend that I had flunked waterbird-watching 101, or actually never emerged from the kindergarten stage. Although she volunteers weekly to conduct nature tours for children at Mitchell Lake, Anne agreed to try to educate me in the environment where I walk in the mornings – along Eagleland and the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River.

First up, of course, were mallards. Then there was a double-crested cormorant, a broody-looking black one with a hooked bill who can hold his breath while fishing under water for an incredibly long time. A tall white egret searched for crawfish, while a great blue heron flew overhead.

Then we came upon a crowd that greatly multiplied the San Antonio River Authority’s normal work crew on the river’s banks. They appeared to be volunteers harvesting large quantities of invasive plant material near the water’s edge.

Then my favorite – the yellow-crowned night heron. Next a mature little blue heron (little actually being part of its name), and, just to try to confuse me, an immature one that had not turned blue-gray yet but was white.

More volunteers in a canoe fetching trash collected from a man in waders. A huge sheet of heavy black sheeting they pulled from the river was crumpled up next to discarded pairs of crawfish claws left on the egrets’ favorite breakfast table near the train tracks.

Can crawdads not see yellow? It seems as though the schoolbus-yellow feet of the wading snowy egrets would be hard to miss underwater. A sandpiper scurried by.

At a doughnut refueling station near Roosevelt Park, Anne asked the volunteers who they were. A woman answered enthusiastically they were from all branches of the Armed Forces in San Antonio, and this was how they were celebrating Earth Day. She said proudly:

This is our community, and we want to give back to it.

Of course, Earth Day is not actually until tomorrow, but the Air Force is proclaiming “Every day is Earth Day,” with this year’s theme as “Conserve today and secure for tomorrow.” The volunteers come from the Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment, the Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency, the Air Force Real Property and  502nd Air Base Wing.  They started celebrating by performing hard manual labor at San Pedro Park (photo) on April 1 and Memorial Park on April 14.

By the crayola footbridge, we encountered those with the roughest assignment wading and raking out large slimy swaths of oozing blooming green algae so thick a family of six little ducklings was easily walking across it.

Bob Moore, director of the Air Force Real Property Agency in San Antonio, told Texas Public Radio’s Eileen Pace it was a rewarding experience:

We were scraping some algae off, and a 12-inch long bass jumped right out of the water because we had scraped the algae underneath it. Ducks were coming in right behind us in the clean water and reclaiming the area we had just cleaned out.

On the way back, spied a pair of my second-favorite birds, not because of their shocking flourescent pink-orange bills and webbed feet but for their name. For some reason, it just makes me smile: black-bellied whistling ducks. Anne said that now I can even graduate to Mitchell Lake.

I don’t think I’d be misspeaking to extend thanks to all the volunteers from the Armed Forces on behalf of the birds. The egrets and herons probably all settled into their nests in the trees off of Alamo Street last night with such strong feelings of security they decided to expand their families. Their home, this river, keeps getting better and better.

Update on April 22, 2011: And the wildflowers are beautiful!

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