Egrets and seagulls

I am actually writing this during Spring Break, sitting on a small screened porch surrounded by palm trees and hibiscus bushes. The sky is cloudless. There is a slight breeze. In Florida, this week, I have paid a lot of attention to birds. I am slowly beginning to learn the names of the shore birds I see every day as I lie on the sand or swim in the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico. One morning, as I was floating peacefully in the pale green water, an osprey flew over  my head close enough that I could see its beak and talons; its six-foot wing span cast a dark shadow on the water. On the shore, the little sanderlings run out to the ruffled edge of the surf and back again as the water rolls in and out. I have begun to pay attention to subtle, or maybe not so subtle, differences, the way snowy egrets have bright yellow feet, a yellow stripe near their bills and long, spindly black legs.  Black-headed gulls have red beaks that shine like rubies, and when they open their beaks to squawk, the whole inside of their mouths is red. Why is that?  Skimmers have red streaks near their beaks, and fly in flocks, skimming the water, as their name suggests. The brown pelicans drop to the water’s surface and also skim along, fishing.  There’s an endless dance along the water’s edge recorded in the tracks in wet sand, the gulls’ (so many different ones) webbed feet distinct from the spindly three-toed willets.

As I watch, two ideas come to me. The first is simply the wonder of this infinite variation.  Clearly this variation is the result of some kind of evolutionary advantage, but from my limited and human perspective, it’s the beauty that’s remarkable.  These birds surround me with beauty. The sand would be so plain without the etching of bird tracks. The water without the osprey’s shadow would be dull. The flash of the skimmers’ red stripe highlights the cloudless sky.

The second idea has to do with feeling at home somewhere. In the late 1960’s, my husband and I moved to California.  I needed to learn the names of the trees and flowers in order to begin to feel at home there. I had never seen jasmine, or birds of paradise before, nor the stately royal palms or eucalyptus trees, but as I began to learn the names, recognize the smells, the place became comfortable, became home. I am comfortable in Wyoming partly because I know what cottonwoods look like. I know where to find little lady slipper orchids in late June, I know the vanilla smell of ponderosa pine bark.  I know the chickadees on my feeder and the nuthatches. I am happy to see the waxwings return.  Although I am here in Florida for a brief week, as I learn the names and habits of the shore birds, I become more connected to this place, too. When I come back, which I probably will, I will be able to walk to the beach, look at the tracks of the black-headed gulls, and the willets lacing along the water’s edge.  I will smile as the gull scolds me for not sharing my snack with him. I will follow the pelicans skimming over the water’s surface. I will feel a part of this place.

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13 thoughts on “Egrets and seagulls

  1. my beach this week was on the opposite coast and it was cold and windy. but i watched pelicans, flying in pairs, just as you watched birds. i wish i had been as grounded – thanks (as always) for the perspective.

  2. This post made me miss Arizona.

    I remember the blooming wildflowers that spread across the desert each monsoon season, and the soft yellow, white and pink flowers that crown saguaro cacti during spring. Palo Verdes are everywhere in some parts of the desert. They start out as little green weeds that grow into massive, beautiful trees. I remember the sweet juice of prickly pears – like this weird cross between strawberry and watermelon. Prickly Pears are everywhere, now. Apparently, they’re some kind of superfruit. They’re the taste of my childhood, to me.

    Two of my closest friends had these things just sitting in their front lawn. A massive Palo Verde was what my friends and I played on when we still played our imaginary games. Another friend of mine had five or six prickly pear cacti in her front yard. We would always pick them off and eat them, the little spiky hairs on the fruit sticking into the sleeves we grabbed them with week afterwards.

    Thank you for helping me remember these things, J.

  3. Thank you for sharing this post, I love knowing I am not the only one who craves the sense of place that comes with names. It is my guide books and relentless questioning of the locals about their flora and fauna, that have eased my transition to Idaho.

  4. Rachel.. you are not the only one by any means. I love knowing that the White Pine of New England has five needles in each bunch, and that the white Pine is the sacred tree of the Iroquois because each needle represents one of the five tribes of the Iroquis nation.. I love that you can recognice a sugar maple leaf because of the U shape in one of the fingers of the leaf.. (like the U in sugar)

    all of this stuff keeps us grounded, rooted in a place.. it doesn’t feel foreign if we know the birds and trees and stuff..

  5. I love how at home you made me feel in your blog. Also, you make me want to learn more about the things I come across in my surroundings! Thank you!

  6. I can remeber a vioilet grove near where I spent most of my childhood and the sense that violets always remind me of that place. When I lived in Australia there were fields of purple flowers which were called patterson’s curse because the cattle could not eat them and they took over. It is interesting to see things from different perspectives related to place because now I am over run with violets in one of my gardens and they choke out the other plants. Yet I look at their lovely purple flowers and remember another place.
    Birds do the same thing. When I moved back from Australia I brought a tape back with me with the wonderful bird songs that I wouldn’t find here.

    • I remember that violet place. I found it and made everyone else come see it.I can still see exactly where it was. It was so amazing.

  7. The three of us are very different, but all great friends and colleagues. We are having fun writing about stuff that matters to us.

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