Heat and Humidity have resumed their annual one-upmanship contest here in Arch City. Being outdoors mid-day can be unpleasant, so my canine companion and I have been trying to beat them to the starting blocks by heading out for our daily constitutional as early as possible.
We stroll two blocks, past grand Italianate manors and restored Victorian row houses, to a handsome mid-19th century city park—the oldest in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. Paved pathways meander through 30 acres of enormous shade trees and lovingly tended flower beds, past fountains, a graceful bridge, and a gazebo, all within the protective embrace of the original cast iron perimeter fence. There’s even a lake, complete with fish, semi-aquatic turtles, a small flotilla of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos)… and what Victorian-era water-feature would be complete without a few imperious Mute Swans (Cygnus olor)?
The park is a hub of activity in afternoon and early evening. The sound of vehicles, emergency sirens, construction and commerce seep in from the surrounding streets, combining with the squeals of children blowing off steam at the playground, flag football players shouting audibles, or a crowd cheering at vintage baseball game, depending on the season. Fiercely determined joggers make their appointed rounds. Dogs check messages on trees and bushes while their humans check smartphones. Families gather ’round a picnic table, young lovers sunbathe on hand-me-down quilts, wedding rings are exchanged, friends play frisbee, and there are free open-air concerts under the leaves and stars.
Most mornings, though, it feels like a quiet private garden. The park has become a favorite since my homecoming a couple years ago. GPS may pin my location as near the center of a bustling city but the dappled stillness of this urban oasis, complimented with the music of dancing water and splashes of birdsong, sets an unhurried tone. By the end of our walk I’m ready to step off of cobblestones and back onto the Information Highway and my 21st century life.
During a recent morning stroll around the lake, I spotted a slim solitary figure standing still as a statue at the water’s concrete edge; a Great Egret (Ardea alba Linnaeus) doesn’t exactly blend in with the surroundings. There’s simply no point in trying to hide when you’re a 3’ tall bird with a serpentine neck, clad in your breeding season best: extravagant lacy white plumes, a saffron bill, lime-green lores, and long jet-black legs and feet.
My heart leapt—not because the bird was beautiful (although it was), and not because I didn’t yet have one on my life list (I’ve seen many). No, it was seeing a Great Egret in this place that brought tears of joy to my eyes.
When Lafayette Park was first dedicated, it would have been a rare sight indeed to see those elegant courtship aigrettes on anything other than a lady’s hat. Great Egrets were hunted almost to the point of extinction to satisfy fashion’s dictate that a proper, self-respecting adult female must never be seen in public without a pile of millinery fabric, lace, ribbons, flowers, feathers, and avian body parts balanced on her head. Egret plumes, in particular, were all the rage.
Concern over the looming disappearance of this and other bird species allowed a fledgling U.S. conservation movement to take flight in the early 20th century. By 1918, the National Audubon Society and others successfully pressured Congress into passing and funding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
It was our first serious wildlife protection legislation, and by any measure the Act has been a spectacular success. Many species on the verge of extinction 100 years ago are now doing quite well. And while hats and “fascinators” are currently experiencing a small uptick in popularity after a decades-long fall from favor, albeit without the wild bird feathers that graced predecessors, their numbers pale in comparison to the Great Egret renaissance. Although exact population numbers are hard to find, the species is now classified as “common,” numbering in the tens of thousands of breeding pairs, at minimum.