I was on my way to the laundry room to see if the last load I had put in the washer was finished yet. The door to the conference room was open, and I saw Dragon leaning on her reading stand, discussing the contents of a book with Cleric.
I entered the room, and they both looked up. “Interesting reading?”
Dragon shook her head. “Very dry, Mistress.”
Cleric sighed. “We are still attempting to understand what happened last week, when everyone, save Dragon and myself, and you and Master Miles, were struck down by some mysterious malady. Dragon was consulting some ancient tomes.”
“Unfortunately, they have not yielded a single clue to the nature of the illness, nor to its source. And I still cannot discern why the four of us were the only ones not affected.” Dragon snorted a puff of black smoke. “It is very frustrating.”
I nodded. “I imagine so. Still, everyone has recovered from the illness and its effects. Is it important to research it now, after the fact?”
Dragon frowned. “If we are to avoid such a calamity in future, we need to understand what happened and why. I keep hoping I will find some reference to a similar situation in one of these historical records.”
Cleric rubbed her temples and sighed heavily. “I grow weary of all this research. I think what we all need is a diversion. Mistress, perhaps you and Master Miles could organize an outing for us? It has been a very long, cold winter, and you have taken very few nature photos. Now, spring is finally upon us. A good nature hike would be most enjoyable.”
I smiled and nodded. “That’s a great idea, but it’s a bit late in the day for that now. Perhaps we could go first thing tomorrow morning. Why don’t you see if anyone else is interested?”
“I will find everyone right now and ask them!” Cleric skipped out of the room, humming happily.
Dragon frowned. “I hope you do not mind, Mistress, but I will . . . what is that idiom you use? I will take a storm coupon?”
I smiled at Dragon’s attempt to use a modern phrase. “I think you mean a rain check.”
“Of course.” Obviously embarrassed, Dragon morphed to a pale blue, and smoke bubbles dripped from her snout. “Rain check. I will take a rain check.”
“You don’t want to go on an outing, now that the temperature doesn’t have you huddled in front of your illusory fireplace?”
“I think it best if I continue my research, Mistress. I really do fear an illness such as we just encountered could again befall us. I need to understand where it originated, and why only some were affected.”
I shrugged. “Very well, but if you change your mind, you know we would love to have you join us.”
An hour later, I was folding the laundry I had just removed from the dryer. Cleric entered the laundry room, scuffing her feet and wearing a dejected expression.
I put down the sheet I was folding. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, nobody wants to go on the outing tomorrow. Your Foreman and the lads want to work their horses. They say they have not been able to do that all winter. Sorceress and Dragon want to work on the mystery of the recent illness. Your Old Dwarf just wants to stay home and polish his armor. I got the impression your Bounty Hunter was interested, but your Arrogant One just snorted at the idea of going on a nature hike, and you know the one would not go without the other.”
I sighed. “Miles has other plans, too. So, I guess it’s just you and me!”
Cleric blinked. “You would take me, even if the others do not come?”
I smiled. “Of course! You are the only one who can get the wildlife to pose for me, so I can take pictures!”
I don’t think Cleric’s smile could possibly get any wider. “What time do we leave?”
* * *
The next morning, I was up early, but Cleric was already waiting for me. I saw she had discarded her clerical robes in favor of a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, and she had replaced her sandals with a pair of comfortable sneakers. I nodded my approval at her outfit. “You look all set for a nice, long hike.”
“Oh, I am, Mistress. I hope we see a lot of birds and animals.”
I grabbed my camera, kissed Miles goodbye, and off we went.
“Where are we going?”
“Well, I thought we’d start at Carver Park Reserve, then go to Purgatory Creek Park.”
“Have I ever been to either of those places?”
“I don’t remember, but don’t worry. I’m pretty sure you’ll like them.”
Ten minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot at the entrance to Carver Park Reserve.
“Look, Mistress! Those birds walking in that field are almost as tall as me! What are they?”
Grabbing my camera, I replied “Sandhill Cranes!” I snapped a few quick shots before the birds disappeared into thicker vegetation.
Cleric looked disappointed that the birds didn’t stay longer, but a flutter of movement caught her attention. In a moment, she was skipping over to see some Tree Swallows. One was on top of a nest box, the other watching from a tree. “Here, Mistress! They will pose for you!”
I hardly had time to photograph those birds when Cleric was squealing in delight. “Mistress! These pretty blue birds here will also pose for you!”
“Great! I didn’t realize the Eastern Bluebirds were nesting already.”
“And look, Mistress! I remember this bird from last year – a Yellow-rumped Warbler! You told me they were also called Butter Butts.”
The bird in question didn’t seem pleased with that moniker and refused to show that part of his anatomy for which he was named. He only posed for one quick photo before flitting off in search of food.
“Here’s a White-throated Sparrow!” Cleric smiled, obviously pleased she remembered the identity of another bird we had seen last year.
As I took the sparrow’s picture, Cleric wandered over to the nearby pond. “Oh, look, Mistress!”
I followed her over and saw her engaged in conversation with a muskrat. I took a few photos of him before he made a face at me. Cleric laughed. “I think he said that he is tired of posing and wants to get back to his breakfast.”
Leaving Carver Park Reserve, we drove to Purgatory Creek Park. As we pulled into the parking lot, I explained to Cleric, “I would like to get pictures of the waterfowl here.”
“I will attempt to get them to pose for you, Mistress.”
As we walked around the water’s edge, Cleric pointed to a group of strange looking birds. “What are those? I have never seen anything like them before!”
“Those are Horned Grebe.” She called them over and I snapped a few shots.
“Look! A goose!”
I turned toward the Canada Goose Cleric was approaching. She got it to pose for a beautiful shot with a nice reflection in the water, and then a close-up. “Thanks! That was great!”
As we walked along the water’s edge, Cleric coaxed more birds to come close to us. I snapped a few more photos, identifying the birds for Cleric.
“That’s a male Ring-necked Duck.”
“And there’s another Ring-necked Duck with a male Ruddy Duck.”
“There’s a pair of Ruddy Ducks.”
“What are those different ducks in with the Ring-necked Ducks, Mistress?”
I looked where Cleric was pointing, and took a quick snapshot as I explained, “The one with the blue bill is a Lesser Scaup. The one with the brownish head and white eye-ring is the female Ring-necked Duck.”
We continued hiking for the next several hours, snapping pictures of many of the waterfowl in the park.
We saw a pair of the Lesser Scaup, and Cleric called them over. She tilted her head as she looked at them. “So that’s what the female looks like.”
We saw some Pied-billed Grebes.
We saw several Mallards.
Then we came upon a group of American Coots.
“Look at their feet!” Cleric pointed and giggled.
Snapping several shots, I explained, “They have lobed feet. Their toes have stiff scale-covered flaps that help them kick through the water when swimming. When they’re walking, the scales fold back to help them move unimpeded over uneven land or through aquatic vegetation.”
After taking the last photo of the American Coots, we walked back to the parking lot. Suddenly, Cleric stopped short and I almost ran right into her. “Mistress, look!”
There, on a streetlamp, was an immature Bald Eagle. It had some branches in its talons and was trying to arrange them on the light.
“Is that eagle building a nest? There?”
I shook my head. “It’s probably just practicing. This bird doesn’t have the full white head and tail of an adult, so it’s not yet of breeding age.”
“Well, I think this one needs a lot of practice!” Cleric giggled as the vegetation slipped off the lamp, and the Bald Eagle started preening itself as if embarrassed. Then, it turned its head as if to ignore us.
As we headed back home, Cleric was all smiles. “I really enjoy these nature walks. Can we go again soon, Mistress?”
“We’ll see. I hate to make any promises. We never know what might happen.”
Be sure to come back next week and see if things remain calm and peaceful so we can go on another outing, or if my characters will land us in some new adventure. We’ll leave the porch light on for you!