A good, well-shaded place with a baby

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By Brett McNeil

Columnist

The trail is cool in the shade. 

My wife and I have a baby boy and I've been home with him for a couple weeks. Our daytime routine includes regular stroller walks within North Riverside's terrific Village Commons Park and, since the boy prefers being held to rattling along in the stroller, we've picked out a couple favorite park benches. 

The first sits to the south of the larger pond, beneath the sheltering and swaying canopy of a weeping willow. The other sits just past the scenic little footbridge in a pocket of shade and quiet. 

He sits upright on my lap, growing stronger and more alert, and we watch the wind in the trees and wind rippling over the surfaces of both ponds. 

We watch the time-lapse maturation of this year's gosling and duckling populations -- teenagers today they were just hatchlings two months ago. We watch the parade of house sparrows and robins and grackles and starlings through the park pavilions and along its pathways. 

But sitting still and mostly quiet on our preferred perches, we see subtler dramas unfold inside the park. 

A common tern is a regular visitor, hovering over the larger pond. 

We see the bird one day plunge into the water and emerge with a beak full of koi. The fish kicks its tail but the tern has good purchase and the two are soon lifting back up into the sky, overhead and then up and past the trees. 

We, of course, see the navy of painted turtles that patrols these ponds. 

The footbridge bench is good for turtle-watching and especially good for baby turtle-watching. The tiny, defiant reptiles like to sun on the stones along the bridge footings and are quick to duck back into the pond when noisy kids wheel by on their bikes and Rollerblades. 

One afternoon we watch the water at pond's edge start to spurt and splash, and another goldfish fin comes flopping to the surface. It moves closer and closer to shore. Behind the fish, an adult painted turtle, moving like a vicious and masticating aquatic bulldozer, is chomping and killing and beaching the fish. 

"Son," I say, "this is a pretty park but it's hell on goldfish." 

The boy sticks his hand in his mouth.

Across the south pond, we see a flash of blue and black, a good-sized creature, swoop across the tree line and into a willow. We have a pacifier and a bottle and several blankets but no binoculars so we walk over and peer into the tree. 

Hunched on a branch overhead, we look at the bird and it looks back with red eyes. 

"That's a black-crowned night heron," I say to the boy in my arms. 

"I'm glad we saw that together."

Trail Conditions explores the woods, waters and trails out our back doors. Brett McNeil lives in North Riverside. Write to him at brett@rblandmark.com.

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