Eric and I visited the garden briefly last weekend; we were having a discussion of different driving routes for his old and new apartments, and he mentioned that we hadn't taken this bit of 394 in quite some time, but used to use it as a fast way to get to Eloise Butler from my house. "Eloise Butler," I said reflectively, meaning, hey, the garden is open and it's not a horrible day in terms of weather. So we dropped by quickly, postponing our grocery shopping.
It was classic very early spring in the garden. No overall mist of greening leaves, but the occasional fantastical bud, sticky-tight, or half-open, or frothing out its small leaves in unrecognizable shapes. We heard red-bellied woodpeckers saying Quirrrr quirrr quirrr. Here and there the little white candles of bloodroot stood about, wrapped in their gray-green fringed leaves. On the slope where they surprise us every time, clump after clump of sharp-lobed hepatica bloomed in pink and blue and white, bowing and shaking on their thin stems in the spring breeze. Trout lily leaves were up in abundance. The false rue anemone was up here and there, many of its leaves still reddish. Skunk cabbage was red and redolent in the marsh.
The little snow trillium was blooming furiously just up the hill from the swamp boardwalk.
So that was our first visit, and we were very glad to have made it. We went back with forethought yesterday. It was a hot day. I resent hot days in April more than I can say. It should not be hot before the leaves are out. It should not be hot in April at all.
That said, by the time we had left the steep driveway and taken the little gravel trail that leads down the hill to the front gate of the garden, I had become resigned to the weather. Before we were halfway up the drive, Eric pointed out a deer crossing it, in a very leisurely manner. We were able to spot her again, standing in the brush on the righthand side of the drive and looking at us, ears alert. She was mostly able to blend into the thin wavery brush, but the ears gave her away.
We were hearing a lot of red-bellied woodpeckers, and one flew past and gave us a couple of good quick views in between its trips behind whatever tree we were looking at it in. Then we heard a Woody the Woodpecker laugh, and Eric said, "That's not quite big enough to be a pileated -- no, wait, it is a pileated." Sure enough, that crazy hammer-head with its stripes, and the remarkably huge body of the woodpecker showed briefly before this one too, in the manner of all woodpeckers, moved around behind the tree so that we couldn't see it any longer. We were enormously pleased, feeling that anything after this would just be extra-fancy icing.
We decided to go up to the meadow first. We had left it unvisited the last time because not much in terms of flora happens there early in the year; but I'd recalled that there is a little prairie smoke and some pasque flower up there and we thought we would look for them. There were some nice clumps of bloodroot along the trail under the white pines, and then many leaves of Virginia waterleaf, and some thistle and aster rosettes, pushing up through the few remaining fallen stems of last year's prairie. When we came around the bend and saw the first part of the meadow, everything seemed very open and empty; in summer and fall, the plants and grasses are shoulder-high on me, but now nothing more than a few inches high was visible. It looked as if they might have burned the slope of meadow visible from the approach, not recently but maybe last fall sometime: the thick layers of fallen grasses and prairie flowers were missing. We'd seen plum trees blooming in people's yards as we rode the bus to the park, but the little arch of wild plum that leads to the meadow proper was just coming into bud.
We went down the slope and onto the path that goes around the central meadow hill, where we were intercepted by a tall dark-haired young man with a walking staff. He asked if we wanted to see the owlet. Well, yes, we did. He pointed it out to us, but we couldn't see it -- he was much taller than I am, and there was a screen of brush that confused the eye. "I'll walk you down to it," he said, so we followed him down to the lowest part of the meadow, where finally, just the other side of the garden fence, we saw a big cream-colored ball of fluff with an owl's face, clinging very firmly to a short stub of a branch not very far from the ground, blinking from time to time, and looking like any fledgling simultaneously terrified, winsome, and bewildered. We had encountered one of the staff on our way down, and she and the young man were discussing the mother owl, which after quite a lot of work Eric and I managed to see high up in a white pine behind the owlet's tree. "Look for her little white bib and the horns," the young man urged, and they were there, but she was very well camouflaged. So they were great horned owls, which we've hard hooting many times and seen silhouetted against the sky on the other side of the garden. But we had never seen an owlet before, or had a glimpse of an adult that showed the white bib.
After a while we thanked the young man and went on up the next hill, stopping to look down at a little loop path that is packed with ferns during the garden's proper season. The ferns weren't up yet, but there was a good patch of bloodroot down at the bottom of the loop. A cardinal was tuning up from the evergreens, and a few more red-bellied woodpeckers quirred somewhere hidden. We went along the edge of the hill and sat on a bench, marvelling at the view when there were no leaves to block it. The clump of birches at the other end of the meadow had new pale green leaves. The meadow was still brown, but Eric noticed a dragonfly, a migrating green darner; and then another; and then the sun came out from behind the clouds and backlit six or eight darners and the cloud of tiny insects they were hunting.
We finally tore ourselves away and went back to the bottom of the central hill to check for asparagus spears, but it was too early. We went down the steep trail through the woods with its sheets of emerging trout lily leaves, and I saw a single plant of Dutchman's breeches, fine frilly leaves and ridiculous white and pink flowers on their tiny stalk. Further down were more hepatica, a number of clumps of actual rue anemone in pink form for easier identification; and, increasingly as we went downhill, big patches of false rue anemone, in bud and blooming shining white, according to the light they were getting. We decided that we'd see the most flowers if we bypassed the marsh and went along the far side of the woods, so we did that, noting in passing that the marsh marigolds, which had been up last week, now had minute yellow buds. The skunk cabbages had put up bright green leaves and were somewhat less stinky. Eric noticed that the patch of Virginia bluebells on the left side of the path had buds, some still pink and some blue already. The snow trillium was still blooming ferociously, and we started to see first individual trout lily buds and flowers, and then, as we went up the far slope of the woods above the marsh, a patch of yellow trout lily, and another, and another, and then sheets of white ones interrupted by clumps of yellow. I remarked that another name for the yellow trout lily is the dog's-tooth violet.
We passed some people who told us that they had seen four deer and three wild turkeys. We felt smug about our owlet, but when we saw the first wild turkey hen poking around under a fallen tree trunk, we stopped and gaped at her anyway. At some point we sat down on a bench overlooking the marsh, and Eric checked the time and the bus schedule and we realized that we'd have to hurry. We didn't do very well at that, however. There were other hen turkeys; there were flowers and fantastical shrubs budding, the trillium leaves we had seen last week, had their pointy buds well out, and it's a bit of a hilly slog back up towards the Martha Crone Shelter. When we got there, a nice man told us there was a tom turkey displaying, and he was, right on the path that goes past the periwinkle further on; so we watched him for a while. He was missing a tail feather, but still a splendid sight. I've seen a tom turkey displaying his feathers once before, but hadn't really noticed how the rick black feathers of the back get into the act as well, so that he looks as if he is part very upset cat. The hen turkeys stalked stolidly through the dead leaves, poking with their beaks for insects, and at least pretended to ignore him. We got our best view when a woman with a camera made him decide that he should turn back and go into the woods just below the shelter.
We had missed our intended bus by then, but they were about to close the shelter, so we dawdled up the hill and, when one of the staff came to lock up, out the gate and up to the parking lot, where we sat on a bench under the beautiful river birch they have there and watched the quintessential common animals disport themselves in the grass: a robin, a gray squirrel, and an Eastern chipmunk. The disparate birdsong that we'd had as background had changed to chickadees saying, "Cheeseburger," over and over, establishing their nesting territories. Wee went slowly back down the driveway, now lined with robins about twenty feet apart, and found our bus stop, and went home.