Of sandpipers and the ocean’s waves

November 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

In another space and time I was a birdwatcher, and co-authored a book with two of the finest living field ornithologists called “Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.” The book was called that, not my co-authors. Their names are Robert Behrstock and Ted Eubanks. Despite my involvement in the project, it was published by the highly respected Texas A&M University Press.

I wouldn’t call it an NYT bestseller…

My youngest son has to do a project for his eighth grade science class, and Ted suggested a bird survey from RAT Beach to the Pier that counted the ratio of adult to juvenile Heerman’s Gulls throughout the four-month study period. Once a week my son makes the two-mile trek along the beach, carefully counting and recording the gulls.

Yesterday, on Thanksgiving, I accompanied him. It’s been several years since I went birdwatching, and I had forgotten what a peaceful and awe-inspiring pastime it is. At one point we stopped to watch a small flock of Sanderlings dash out with the receding waves, nab the hapless, tiny crustaceans and mollusks exposed in the mud, and run back to safety just a half-step ahead of the onrushing, incoming waves.

The extraordinary work and effort it took for each bird to get a bite made me pause. For these tiny birds there is no unemployment insurance, no Social Security for old age, not even a fridge to store the food in case they’re sick or laid up for a few weeks. Each day is the same day. Eat what you kill or starve. Lameness or sickness is certain death.

A little farther we spied a pair of Whimbrels, and then over the jetty there was a foursome of Black Oystercatchers. The final flock, just before the pier, contained the highlight of the day: a delicate Bonaparte’s Gull, with its dainty pink legs, standing amidst the much bigger Heerman’s and the oversized Western gulls. So much beauty and toughness and ruggedness passed down through millions of years in microscopically jellied dabs of DNA, waiting on the edge of a cold ocean for whatever food, if any, the waves might offer up. These creatures would survive another day with no accoutrements to assist their survival other than their wits, their instinct, and strength of their limbs.

I thought about rolling down the coast highway wrapped in every conceivable fabric, oiled with specialty creams, pedaling a machine that required the cooperation of an entire global economy to fabricate, assemble, and deliver between my legs. I froze in that quicksand moment of time, overwhelmed with thanks at being there with my son, at having the health and pleasure of an avocation like cycling, at having children and a wife who are the people they are. Through the sanderlings, dashing undaunted as they foraged in the waves, I was able to give thanks, thanks for all, thanks to all.

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