Volume 13, Issue 37 ~ September 15 - 21, 2005

Bay Reflections

Birds and Baseball
The Nats may not be orioles, but they offer similar rewards
by Mark McCaig

At every baseball game, hope and fantasy meet reality and cold facts. I’ve followed the watershed’s newest nine upstream in Washington this summer, dragging my daughter along for the Nationals’ inaugural season.

As we ascended the concrete ramps leading to the utilitarian confines of RFK Stadium to see the Nats play the Cincinnati Reds, I spied the delicious green invitation. Is there a better seduction in sports than the bright green expanse of an empty baseball field? They say that you’ll see something new at every ball game, and each time I wonder what novelty will transpire on the green.

A young pitcher named Luke Hudson silenced the Nats’ bats (astute fans know these bats are quiet by nature.) An inveterate birder, I turned my eyes to the skies above the field. I saw pigeons, a few tree swallows and what I presumed was a nighthawk. A lighted stadium in late summer is classic nighthawk habitat, a prime field for their wide-mouthed, bouncy flights in search of insects.

Yet something about this nighthawk was amiss. This bird flew with more power, too much direction for a goatsucker (the nighthawk’s family, including whippoorwills and chuck-will’s widow) No, this creature’s gestalt said one thing to me: raptor.

On the field below, the Reds turned another double play. Beneath the eaves that encircle the interior of the stadium, the sleek bird circled safe toward Section 530, where I recognized it as an American kestrel.

I’d never seen a kestrel after sunset. Perhaps the day-bright lights had attracted it to the park. A field guide query later confirmed that kestrels do eat insects along with small rodents, birds and reptiles, so my identification gained plausibility. Too bad they don’t nosh on Cincinnati Redlegs, as they put a whipping on our guys that night.

I remained skeptical until we caught an afternoon game two days later. This time my binoculars clarified the sideburns and slate-blue wings of the colorful falcon soaring above the players. I wondered who else spied the oddity. Would second baseman Jose Vidro implore its help as an animal totem in breaking his hitting slump? Perhaps Reds’ star Ken Griffey Jr. was inspired by its presence, as he ripped the Nats for four hits that day, including a line drive homer to right field reminiscent of a hawk pursuing a songbird. His impressive round-tripper was the first of Griffey’s 500 plus that I’d seen live. It also sealed another win for the Reds.

Baseball and birding are primal pastimes that reward lifelong study and attention to detail. Losses in baseball still hold treasures, and they provide contrast and yearning for victory’s bliss. Slow birding days sweeten bonanzas. I hope to impart to my daughters these disparate passions. For a couple of days in August they flew together, a kestrel and a future Hall of Famer, performing seasonal dramas on the banks of the Anacostia River.

Mark McCaig of Fairhaven has contributed to Bay Weekly since its first year, 1993. He last reflected on Mud Tides on August 25.

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