It was one of those rare days in spring when the air is warm, the trees are starting to bud, and the mosquitoes haven’t decided to come out yet. The Delaware-Raritan Canal trail was soft without being muddy. The robins were back, and the geese were protecting those cute fuzzy goslings. Picture perfect for a hike along the water.

A black lab came running up, tongue hanging out in a grin, sleek fur wet from his surreptitious swim. I jumped back from the inevitable shake and drench. The blonde fellow in the jacket with the suede elbows looked embarrassed — for his dog harassing the water fowl or me I couldn’t tell.

“Sorry about Dolly,” said Suede Elbows, which didn’t answer that question. He noticed the Nikon digital SLR camera around my neck. “Out taking pictures on this great day?”

I snapped a couple of pictures of Dolly. “Yes, but what I was really hoping for was a picture of a heron. Have you seen any?”

“Hmm, those birds with the rather long beaks? I’m not sure, but there might have been something like that back towards Washington Road. Dolly was barking at something near the water surface around there.”

Dolly was now sniffing behind me, trying to get a look at her picture on the digital camera’s view panel. Really. “Can I get a copy of those?” asked Suede Elbows. “If I see the heron again I’ll text message you from my Blackberry.”

We exchanged cell phone and e-mail info and continued on. I heard the woodpeckers calling. Several large ravens teased me by disturbing the tree tops, only to reveal their mundane covey existence. Blue jays both scolded me and enticed me with their colorful plumage. Not even a pair of cardinals, my personal favorites, could cheer me this morning. I wanted the heron.

I reached Washington Road, but if a heron had been here he had moved on. I crossed the road of stately trees and moved further up the canal.

The squeak of a bicycle brake behind me heralded the arrival of a dark haired teen in an orange Princeton jersey, complete with Tiger picture. His girlfriend dismounted shortly behind him. Tiger ran up to grab the reason for their thankfully not literal fall to earth — a large log strewn dangerously across the path.

Tigress walked her bike next to me, and I took the opportunity to again inquire about herons in the area. “No,” she said, “But we did see a goldfinch. Horace tells me they are the New Jersey state bird, but it is the first one I have seen in the six months since I have been here.”

“Really?” I answered. “I thought the state bird was the mosquito.”

“Actually,” said Horace, “The state bug is the honeybee.” I learned about the birds and bees while he worked the log off the path. I couldn’t decide if he was majoring in government or biology. “We will be riding all the way up to Kingston and back, so if we see a heron we can call you.”

So it went. I met an older Indian couple who thought they had spotted one when they parked their car near Harrison Street. A couple of guys in their 20s, fishing on the small bridges, had definitely seen a heron, but it was at least an hour ago. A troop of Brownie Girl Scouts, out on a hike to earn a nature Try-It, showed me big check marks next to “heron” on their sheets. The woman pushing a baby stroller hadn’t seen one herself but had heard a couple of teenage girls discussing seeing one. Everyone promised to call/message/e-mail if he came back. There was definitely a heron around here, but he was camera shy.

Discouraged, I sat down to a bag lunch and a bottle of water. It was about a half hour later when I received a call from the fishermen. “The heron’s back! At the south side of the bridge area!”

I thanked them and hurried back that way. I hoped the heron wouldn’t leave in the 10 to 15 minutes it would take me to get there.

Three minutes into my rush, my phone beeped with e-mail, then a text message. The theme from Star Wars announced the arrival of a call, and “Ode to Joy” informed me that I had voice mail. I was too much in a rush, and finally turned the thing off. All that beeping and music might scare off the heron.

“Heron, heron!” the fisherman pointed with his pole. YES! It was still there. So was a small mob. Suede Elbows had Dolly on a short leash, trying to keep her quiet. The Indian couple was pointing excitedly, beaming at me. Horace and the Tigress were walking their bikes across the bridge, and I could tell that Tigress’ opinions of New Jersey went up at least two notches. The baby had woken from its nap and was jumping up and down in the stroller, pointing at the bird. The Girl Scout leader was desperately trying to keep the troop quiet so as not to scare the bird, despite the ruckus of the adults.

I was just snapping away, trying for every angle at the highest possible zoom. The large gray majestic bird with the long sharp beak was recorded in intimate detail. I filled my 8 gig memory card at high res before the bird finally flew off. The group’s euphoria continued, and we hugged and shared our feelings of the experience. I promised to e-mail pictures to everybody.

Exhausted but satisfied, I finally returned home and loaded my pictures into my computer. I had blowups from every angle, showing every aspect of the large bird.

The next day, I got out my wire and clay and tools and produced a gorgeous, true-tolife statue of the heron. After I fired it and painted it, I doubted if even my new found friends at the canal could tell it was not the real thing. I hoped another heron couldn’t. It was one of my best works, if I do say so myself.

The statue went next to the fish pond in my yard. I move it every few days, as I’ve heard herons are territorial but smart. So far it has worked. No heron is going to use my koi for a sushi bar again.

Mandel, a West Windsor resident for more than 20 years, enjoys the hiking and biking trails around our area. She is active in Girl Scouts and is a member of the West Windsor Bicycle & Pedestrian Alliance. An independent packaging consultant with a masters degree in engineering, she lives with her husband, Richard, daughter, Lauren, and assorted pets, including several koi.

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