Herald-Whig

Venturing outdoors helps cure pandemic boredom

A great blue heron stands atop fallen trees while looking over the water in the Mississippi River bottoms. | Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jun. 30, 2020 12:01 am

The perspiration beading on Charles Harms' forehead trickled over his brow and ran down his cheeks, forcing him to wipe it away with a hand towel that was no longer clean and dry.

The late afternoon sun on a 90-degree day caused him to sweat more than he expected, and he was continually wiping his brow dry. Worse than that, it caused the lenses on his binoculars to fog over.

Harms hurriedly cleaned them, hoping the bird he had been fixed on flying over the Mississippi River wouldn't fade out of sight. No such luck. By the time Harms pushed the binoculars back up against his face, he couldn't find any feathery sights against a cloudless sky.

"I honestly think it was a hooded merganser," Harms said. "But I can't be sure."

He kept surveying the horizon, both with the binoculars and his naked eye, but to no avail. The bird he had honed in on was now gone.

"Oh, well," Harms said, "something else will come along shortly."

It wasn't long before a great blue heron, with its massive wingspan and strong, steady flapping of its wings, soared down the middle of the river.

"I see one every time," Harms said. "It might be the same one, but I have to think there are several around here. It's become the bird I enjoy watching the most. It never seems in a hurry. I like that. I'm never in a hurry either."

Harms is a 70-year-old retired engineer who moved to Quincy two years ago to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren. He grew up in Indianapolis, worked for an engineering firm in the Circle City for nearly 40 years and admittedly never was much of an outdoorsman.

Even after moving here, he never embraced the area's wealth of outdoor activities.

"I like all the parks," Harms said. "They're beautiful."

What he truly enjoyed, though, was playing cards.

Poker. Euchre. Gin rummy. Any game, any day. He'd even ventured to nearby casinos more than a time or two.

"You lose some, you win some," Harms said. "You just hope you break even."

He was ahead of the game just a little when the casino trips and the card nights were abruptly halted. The coronavirus pandemic shut down everything in mid-March, and Harms had to rethink his approach to retired life.

What could he do to stay socially distant, yet find enjoyable?

Golf wasn't it. Neither was gardening. He read a couple books, watched a few movies and played poker online. Still, he admittedly was bored.

Then came his birthday in late April and his grandchildren gave him a high-powered set of binoculars and encouraged to bird watch, animal watch or just go explore the outdoors. Those binoculars sat on the shelf for weeks, still in the box and never used, until a bright morning in early June when the boredom forced him to head to the riverfront.

Harms found a bench in Edgewater Park to park himself on around 8 a.m. He brought a cup of coffee, a bagel and those binoculars. A few songbirds flew around in the park, but he didn't need the binoculars to identify the robins, sparrows and cardinals. A very loud crow flew overhead and he could see mourning doves resting on powerlines.

"It was beautiful," Harms said, "but it wasn't very exciting."

He hung around for a while, and it changed his entire perspective.

A group of about six mallards buzzed by headed for the Quincy Bay. A gaggle of Canada geese flew overhead, veering in the same direction as the ducks. Harms assumed they were looking for food.

"There's water right here," Harms said. "So they had to be looking for something else."

So was he. Something magnificent. Something beautiful. Something he had never seen.

Something like the great blue heron.

Just before he left Edgewater Park that morning, a great blue heron flew along the far side of the river. Herons are wading birds that land in low-water areas and stand on old stumps and downed trees. Harms didn't know that and had no idea where the bird was heading, but he watched it through his binoculars sway gracefully over the water.

"I couldn't take my eyes off it," Harms said. "I still can't."

He can't put the binoculars away either.

Since that morning, Harms has been a regular visitor to the riverfront. He's explored some of the low-water areas in the river bottoms, and he's learned to appreciate the quiet beauty of bird watching.

The great blue heron still captivates him, but he's challenged himself to learn and identify more songbirds and more waterfowl.

"That's why I think I might have been looking at a hooded merganser," Harms said. "Or maybe it's because I read about one and want to see one now. Either way, I'll keep looking for birds I find unique or intriguing."

And he'll continue his early-morning or late-afternoon visits to the riverfront even after the pandemic finally ends.