The 8 Guardians of Mill Pond Park- Bellmore, NY

For a leisurely, Sunday afternoon stroll, we set out for Mill Pond Park as the sky richly turned to sherbet shades. It was mid-May and we knew the park would be vibrant and reverberating with song. By this time in the season, the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, and red-breasted woodpeckers had returned, noisy neighbors with whom the many mallards, swans, and geese would contend in the reedy marshes and open water. I spotted a Baltimore Oriole, a rare sight in my experience, and I marked it as a lucky day. Little did I know what I would find a short while later.

 In the springtime, it was always lively at Mill Pond, which hosted a 1.1-mile paved trail loop around a 100+-year-old body of water, plus a few off-shooting, wandering woodland trails.  On days like that one, I expected the park to be busy. Long Islanders, especially in the surrounding area, love to stretch their legs on something other than their suburban streets. Mill Pond Park, and the dedicated Adam D. Rand Memorial Trail, offered a brief respite from the daily bustle, and the opportunity to commune with nature.

On this day, visitors were throwing bread crumbs for the chance to bring the geese closer, and I reached out to caution them how unhealthy this practice was. Normally I wouldn’t say anything, just tsk tsk  to myself, but I felt truly compelled to inform. They had to know and I had to tell them.

Rather than bread, it would be much safer to throw lettuce, vegetable scraps, wheat, or oats. Bread, aka junk food for fowls, would have minimal nutritious value compared to the vegetation geese and ducks would normally eat.  After eating the bread, geese could easily stop foraging from their natural habitat altogether, creating a kind of selective starvation, impotent dependence on humans, and a serious nutrient imbalance. Then, hungry, seeking out human assistance and eating too much sugar, they were at risk for developing angel wing, a debilitating condition rendering geese flightless. The heavy carbohydrate diet could cause their stomachs to heavily stretch and their wings to grow faster than their bones, which would lead to severe, irreversible deformity. A goose with a twisted wing would not be able to migrate, evade predators, or fly to food or shelter. The same could be said for swans and ducks.

Photo by Brandon Montrone on Pexels.com

If you love feeding the geese, you would be wise to treat them with care, and with the scientific knowledge our human privilege affords us.

I told the couple as succinctly as possible what I knew to be true.  My brief word of caution received naught but a head turn, a callous shrug, and an unceremonious dumping of an entire bag of bread into the awaiting feeding frenzy. The unknowing birds clawed and combatted one another for bites of the poisonous lot. It made my heart ache.

We had expected the park to be busy before we arrived, but after the sorrowful interaction, I longed for solitude. We doubled pace and dove for the more isolated paths, the western acreage. In moments, we found ourselves alone on well-marked trails, crossing small creeks and rediscovering an old, brightly colored, graffitied building previously belonging to Brooklyn City Water Works, before the park was acquired by Nassau County in 1967. The pond was known as Jones Pond then, another name from another era. I allowed myself to be transported, pushing the geese endangerers aside.  

It has always amazed me to find separation from the bustle of humanity while being in the middle of a densely populated suburb, near the busy Mill Pond path, and at times merely 25 meters from the Wantagh State Parkway.  The Long Island developers, intensely flawed (and worse) in their philosophies, gave us all the gift of nature and the presence of so many pocket parks like this one. Everything in balance, the natural world corrects. I breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed back onto the main loop and made our way back to the car.

The day was not to end just yet, however.

As we made our way back to the seating area near the park entrance, where a waterfall kept a steady current flowing, I gazed across the expanse of skunk cabbage for a last look and one final word of gratitude. And I could not believe the sight.

Seven white herons stood distantly across the pond, each on one leg in the hunter’s stance.

It was a rare joy to see even a single heron on Long Island, and as herons prefer hunting in isolation, they were typically sighted alone. (Occasionally, at the height of mating season, they might be seen in pairs.) A handful of herons appeared yearly at various ponds and lakes across the island. Each time, to see one, I could hardly believe my luck. I’ve perched lakeside and watched them hunt while they’ve stood statuesque in shallow waters. Holding still for hours if necessary, on one, skinny leg, they appeared like a twig to an unsuspecting fish. Then, at the perfect moment, they used their free talons to grab and feed.

The experience was magical. They are beautiful, slender, and graceful creatures. They are cautious and clever predators.

Photo by Diego Madrigal on Pexels.com

From this distance, I couldn’t identify if they were snowy egrets (a type of heron) or great blue herons – only the color of the legs or beaks would have differentiated the species. I was gawking, bumbling, then noticing no other park patrons noticing this unbelievably rare sight. Normally, one heron at this lake would turn a few heads. How was no one seeing this?

I stood in awe, deeply moved by the seven figures.

In the Wildwood, the heron is the King of Vessels, a patient, lone hunter defending knowledge. He symbolizes self-awareness at the early breaking of dawn. Herons guard the Celtic otherworld, and can be interpreted as guardians, guides, teachers, or supporters. They are associated with problem solving and self-control, but also an overbearing rigidness or dependence on structure.

My thoughts went rampant while my body remained still. Should I interpret these herons as a sign of some kind from the grand universe? Support for my confident strength and instructional abilities which challenged me to confront and educate the strangers? Maybe. Acknowledgment of the guardianship over and empathy for the flock? Maybe. Approval of my self-awareness at the compulsion to separate myself when I became too emotional for the community? Maybe. Admonition for my rigidity and self-control, which frequently led me to personalize something random as perhaps nature’s secret communique? Maybe, noted, and with that, I snapped from my reverie. Whenever, wherever, I found myself seeking symbolic associations, I’ve usually overstayed my visit.

Mill Pond Park offered a brief respite from the daily rush and the opportunity to relax in its healing bounds. It had an experience waiting for walkers, hikers, sitters, observers, travelers, and even the birders like me.

When I arrived home, however, I was startled, wrenched back into those symbolic overtones I’d tried to escape. My reflection greeted me in the hall mirror. It was displaying the proud heron tee I’d donned much earlier that morning. At the park, the connection hadn’t occurred to me.

There were actually eight herons at the pond that day. Seven white herons and one creative, confident, self-aware protector.

I really was wearing this shirt:

(I’m a huge supporter of Curbside Clothing, and I literally own near 20 items from their collection. This is not a sponsored post or tall tale by any means, just a true post from a woman who is profoundly moved by nature and the work of these commissioned artists.)

Fact Checked and Supported using the following sites:

Great Blue Heron (White)

Angel Wing in Birds

Mill Pond Park | Bellmore, NY Patch

Mill Pond Park | Nassau County, NY – Official Website

King of Vessels Wildwood Tarot Card Meanings

Blue Heron – Dolman T Shirt – Curbside Clothing

Blydenburgh County Park and its Ecosystem

I’m entirely at home during my walks through Blydenburgh County Park, a 627-acre park in Smithtown, NY on the north side of Suffolk County, Long Island. The 6-mile trail, known as the Loop, which circles what is known locally as Stump Pond, is particularly enjoyable. The lake and surrounding forest breathe beautiful life lessons for my spirit to contemplate and appreciate.

On my first walk around the pond, while attending to a hunting heron, I was stopped by a neighborly man who explained that the Pond was man-made with intention. It was created when large swaths of trees were felled at a particularly low elevation. An L-shaped depression collected what seems to be an entire lake’s worth of rainwater. The stumps were left eerily behind to decay into the lakebed. They fed and housed countless species of water-dwelling creatures as they slowly broke down under the surface. 

Despite the best efforts of the Suffolk County Parks Department to name the shallow body Newmill Pond, anyone from the area would identify it as Stump. Water fowl seemed to walk on water. This heron, it would seem, had found a perfect stumped perch on which to prey. 

On the first spring-feeling day in March, I didn’t take the long loop. I choose a shorter hike around the forests lining the southeasterly shore of the pond. By holding to the trails running west and then south, beginning in the Dog Park parking lot, I was able to traverse 2 miles of terrain. The Dog Park was uncharacteristically vacant. Normally, it’s a spot for canine companions to roam and sniff freely, while their handlers discuss ground turkey cuts and chew toy preferences (I imagine.)

A short walk downhill brought me to a small, sandy lookout. Notably, there were twenty or so Mute Swans at the far side of the pond, visible from the trail near the shore. It was one of the earliest signs of spring. The swans were pairing off and beginning their seasonal mating rituals. I imagined these elegant birds in a Swan Soiree, ruffling feathers, swimming in tandem, and catching fish to impress potential mates. It was a dance, a ritual that had been done for generations, playing out for any passerby to see.

A White Mute Swan swimming in a lake with wings up and spread as though taking flight, 3 geese in the far background
(Photo from Pixabay)

It isn’t unusual to see waterfowl in and around Stump — mute swans, Canadian geese, mallards, wood-tail and puddle ducks, and the occasional Great Blue Heron. (New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has released an excellent resource on identifying the most common Long Island waterfowl.) Binoculars come in handy on these trails, not only for the waterfowl, but also the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, fish crows, orioles, blue jays, and other songbirds which live seasonally in and around Blydenburgh and the adjoining Caleb Smith State Park. Occasionally a red-winged hawk will even swoop into view.

Some days, the trails are burgeoning with animal life. On such a wonderfully warm and sunny day, I expected a lot of encounters, more than the far-off courting swans, and was disappointed to find the woods quiet and still, save for a handful of hikers and dogwalkers. 

The park has seen an uptick in visitors since the quarantine began. It lifted my spirits during the depth of the pandemic to see people enjoying the natural landscape, many for the first time. I don’t love when the park is teeming with people; walking shoulder brushing shoulder on narrow trails doesn’t allow the solitude or separation I walk for. As far as our communal life is concerned, however, the health benefits of regular exposure to nature are innumerable, and I’m happy to share the landscape with any and all who wish to traverse it, personal preferences aside. Occasionally, like my stumpifying educator, I even meet a fellow birder or naturalist.

On that day,, I set my mind to feeling the park at winter’s end, before the gnat clouds swarmed, before pollen rained down, and while the trees slept, visibly dormant. In recent storms, the park had lost more than a few trees, which were found in cluttering heaps on the forest floor. 

As the ground cover had not grown in yet, the loss of hundred-plus-year-old titans was in full view, many of whom were likely older than the previous four generations of my own family. It was a solemn sight. Some giants had been pulled directly from the sodden earth and their roots loomed large, 15ft in diameter. False caves of intertwining root structures. Other giants were torn away, limb from trunk, and had been scattered in pieces on the ground and in the crowns of neighboring trees. In many cases, signs of decay prior to the fall was evident in the bare branches and sickly bark. Healthy, aged trees do not go down so easily. Healthy, aged trees don’t lean on neighbors for support.

A long-fallen, dead tree with jagged branches covered in moss
(Photo by amayaeguizabal from Pixabay)

In reflection, I was forced to see the bigger picture. Fungi and bacteria were hard at work on these fallen giants, converting the singular organism back into its raw materials, to be fed back through the cycle and absorbed by other beings as nutrients. Large mushrooms and mossy greenery were budding amidst the bark. These decomposers would live and die as well, and so doing, they would turn the fallen tree to dust.

In the wake of the fallen were generations of progeny reaching into the void for minerals, water, and sunlight. It was only in the death of the elders that the young stood a chance at survival, with the help of nature’s most underappreciated janitors. The process of natural decay, not merely the colorful flowers and leafy ornamentation of spring, brought me hope.

While my human instincts were to grieve the tree and feel loss, I was forced to move forward in the line of reasoning. The death of a single tree allowed for thousands of other species to thrive — for scavengers, decomposers, and even nearby plants to feed. When a century-old oak fell, lurking pine trees gained needed canopy space after ten years dormancy, soaked more sunshine, and shot several feet taller in the following year. Other trees might fuse their root system to the fallen oaks’ roots to strengthen the underground network and above ground stability. (Research has been done to show that many forests appearing as disparate trees are actually embodied by interconnected and wide-spreading family networks.) Excess water and nutrients would fuel new growth. The fallen oak would become a home for some, building material for others, food, and temporary shelter. After the death of a single tree, the forest was made vibrant anew.

As I walked the Blydenburgh forest trails on that sunny, hopeful afternoon, I confronted the bleakest part of the life cycle with acceptance. Spring was not only about the joy of birth, mating swans, hatching eggs, and blooming flowers. It was also a time of reverence. The stumps submerged beneath the water’s surface fueled an entire lake’s ecosystem. Aged trees, felled during a severe thunderstorm, provided necessary raw materials for many plants, animals, insects, fungi and bacteria. Life and death were integral to the forest’s survival. That which was born will die, and that which died will be cherished and reapportioned to new life, and so on.

The pondside path wound back on itself to the road which led back to the Dog Park parking lot. Slow-moving cars and slower-going walkers crossed paths with subtle acknowledgements of the shared experiences, a nod here, a small wave there. I smiled at every dog I passed. Some sniffed gladly in kind. 

a view of the pond at Blydenburgh County Park with trees in the far background
(Photo from TripAdvisor.com)

For the novice hiker, Blydenburgh County Park offers several low-elevation, well-worn and tended paths. It boasts kept campgrounds, a large communal dog park, and plenty of adventuring terrain. It also offers a sense of tranquility for those seeking meaning within nature’s bounds.