Chapter One (Nellie):
“And Nellie?” Steve, the park manager, called just as I was almost out the door.
I shifted the weight of my backpack from one shoulder to the other, and turned, keeping the door propped open with my foot. “Yes, Steve?” I asked barely able to keep the irritation out of my voice. I knew he was my boss, and I knew that I shouldn’t talk to him that way, but he had already done this to me four times. If I didn’t get going soon, I wouldn’t be doing the count today at all.
“Remember not to disturb any of the nests. Not a single one. I mean it,” he said.
“I won’t, Steve,” I called back over my shoulder, struggling not to roll my eyes as I stepped out into the warm May sun.
Spring had finally come to the southern Black Hills of South Dakota, and Prairie Cycad State Park had never looked lovelier to me. Winter had been long and harsh with more days of snow than without, and part of me felt like I had forgotten what it felt like to move my body. Was it possible to atrophy from being stuck inside all winter?
I hurried back around the visitor center, and took the trail to the right that led down to the prairie region of our park. That was one of the coolest parts about our state park; if you went one way you found yourself in a mixed grass prairie, and if you went the other way you found yourself heading into the mountains.
My job today as high school park intern ranger was to go out to count the Indigo-tailed Mountain Wren, a bird so rare that it only lived in our part of the state, nowhere else in the world. This was the start to their nesting season, and it was imperative that we get an accurate count. After such a hard winter, a decline in nesting sights would be a bad sign.
The ground quickly evened out beneath my feet, and I hurried on, prairie rising up on either side of me. I’d need to keep an eye out for lone male buffalo bulls. They were in rut at the moment, and while I knew the location of the main herd with the help of our handy park “Where’s the buffalo?” app, bulls could be anywhere.
“Never take a selfie with a buffalo,” I sang softly to myself as I walked along. “Their horns make them very rough-alo. Never take a selfie with a buffalo, if you don’t want to be gored!”
Two weeks ago the park had decided to film a PSA to inform tourists of the dangers of taking selfies with the wild animals here in the park. It had never occurred to me that you would actually need to tell someone that, but I guess there are all kinds of people who make up the world. The lyrics were kind of stupid, but they sure were catchy.
When I got to the edge of the Indigo-tailed Mountain Wren’s normal nesting grounds, I paused, and pulled out my phone. There was a nifty little app on there that would let me click a picture of each bird and its’ nest, and the app would translate the picture into data that I could just text to my boss. The whole thing made me feel grown-up and important.
I strained to listen for the distinctive call of the bird. Somewhere in the distance one trilled, and relief coursed through me. At least there was one bird out there. Coming back empty handed was not an option.
As I hurried down the trail, I ran through all my mental notes on how to approach a nest without disturbing the bird inside (or aggravating it until it wanted to peck my eyes out.) When I came up to the top of a low rise, I could see across the meadow. Something moved in a tree across the field, and I stopped. The something that caught my eye was neon green, and therefore could only be one thing. A person was up in the tree!
Skulking around the Indigo-tailed Mountain Wren’s territory was one thing, but to actually be up in a tree when not part of an official count (and no ranger would wear neon green when out on a count) was beyond suspicious. I kept to the bushes and low scrub trees that ringed the meadow, and followed along the creek until I was close enough to make out a guy of maybe eighteen or nineteen climbing from branch to branch. Up near the top of the tree I could just make out a nest that I felt sure contained at least one egg from an Indigo-Tailed Mountain Wren.
Quietly I pulled up Steve’s number on my phone, and I was about to call him to ask for advice or back up or whatever the protocol was, when I noticed the guy reaching up toward the nest.
“Stop you poacher!” I yelled. The guy up the tree yelped and came crashing to the ground. “I have my cell phone out, and I get excellent reception out here!”
The guy stood up and dusted off his hideous neon green jacket. Then he gave me a look that let me know he was sizing me up, and then the smirk-y smile spread across his face. “You don’t know who I am, do you?” he asked with a drawl that could only have come from the deep south.
“Why should I?” I retorted. “I don’t make it a habit to be on a first name basis with rare bird poachers.”
“I’m not a poacher,” the guy said. “I’m Rand Elliot.”
The name sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place why. Maybe I’d read about him in the newspaper. Maybe he was wanted for some kind of crime. Rand Elliot took a step toward me, and without thinking I hit Steve’s number on my phone.