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.