Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Birdwatching While Playing Tennis

I’m an easily distracted tennis player, with modest skill and less stamina. I only play at all because my younger daughter is determined to play a great deal this summer and improve her game, and as she has improved, so have I. I’ve even stopped calling what we play “VBT” (Very Bad Tennis). We enjoy ourselves and it’s good for us both. I even win the occasional game, though never a set. She’s working on hitting with spin, and will soon leave me in the dust.

The Northfield Middle School courts, where we often play, are set atop a gentle rise at the edge of town, bordered by farm fields as our main street passes the last of three schools in a row and suddenly becomes rural highway. Playing tennis in the early evening, I’ve come to expect to hear — if not to see — nighthawks out there. The nighthawk is a handsome bird with an unmistakeable piercing — the books say nasal — cry and strongly angled wings, with diagnostic white bars appearing against the dark wing when seen in flight. I hear it before I see it, and then my eyes are off the tennis ball and scanning the sky, hoping to see one or both of the pair I’ve seen before.

Tonight all the courts we usually frequent were in use or, in the case of the high school courts, closed for resurfacing, and we found our way to the deserted Upper Arb courts on the east edge of the Carleton campus. There were no nets, but we decided to ignore the fact and just hit the ball around. A casual game of Ultimate Frisbee was taking place on the adjacent playing field; I could see the sweat darkly staining some T-shirts on this mild but muggy evening.

Suddenly I caught a glimpse of some really large wings passing behind the tall trees bordering the courts to the south. Thinking it was a possible great blue heron, I paused between shots to see the bird emerge, flying with steady purpose to the northeast into the Arb. It was not a heron, it was a large, dark raptor, perhaps a juvenile eagle that didn't yet have its white markings, very clearly carrying something in its talons — a fish seemed most likely, but perhaps a rodent or something else. I couldn’t tell, and it quickly disappeared over the trees. Man, I wished I had my binoculars. I’ll have to bring them next time (and I’m only half kidding).

The Ultimate players cooled down on the side of the hill where we sled in winter, and then traipsed away, leaving us with sole possession of the whole field. We played a little longer, and when we switched sides so that I was again facing the field, I saw that about three dozen Canada geese (several sets of parents with their so-quickly-adolescent offspring, I presume) had wandered up from the Lyman Lakes and were grazing all over the field like so many pastoral sheep in the golden light of the fading day.

Nets or no nets, I’ll be happy to play on those courts again.


maryschier said...

Penny: I'm not sure where else in Northfield you will see blue herons, but we see them all the time while walking around the ponds near our house on the southeast edge of the city. They are marvelous to watch as they swoop over the ponds or even Jefferson Parkway. We have at least one pair nesting in the pond, and even see a pair of egrets from time to time. Love the blog. Mary

Jennifer said...


Keep your eye out for the blue heron. I have seen one on the wooden bridge going to Goodhue. It was beautiful!


heather said...

Penny, I have some little film clips of the family of cardinals that made a nest outside our window. Can I post them on your blog? How do I do it?


Penny said...

Heather -- I'm new to this, but maybe the easiest thing would be if you upload them to YouTube and then post the link here, or e-mail the link to me at, and I'll blog it on the main page.