So many shorebirds! After half a week on this temperate coast in the waning days of winter, I can still only wonder at such finely-grained diversities of wing. They seem vast and billowing, clouds upon the sand.
Their numbers are small, perhaps, compared to the massive muster of only decades past. My shifted baseline lets me see the flocks as great, and I walk among them amazed. This may be an individual blessing as much as it is a general curse.
Sometimes they’re throwing multi-family feasts, all you can catch. Sometimes they keep themselves to themselves. I quite understand the desire for both at once. If I don’t yet comprehend the fine distinctions between a whimbrel and a dowitcher and a godwit, fellow-feeling is a simpler step.
The plovers, at least, are an easy ID. Tiny grey and white puffs with black eyestripes and cartoonishly quick legs, they’re perpetually in motion, striking the wet sand with their small neat beaks like black lightning. Very soon now they’ll start to nest, choosing a shallow scrape in the sand by rules only they know. Their internal guidance routinely ignores human habits. Their perfect scrape might be a day-old footprint on a heavily trafficked beach.
Plover nesting grounds are protected here on the base at Naval Air Station North Island. A section of beach is roped off and signed: no dogs or humans allowed. It’s immediately next to another don’t-tread-on-me zone — this one warns of live rounds firing.
Burrowing owls have claimed much deeper scrapes in the sandy tangle of low-slung weeds across the access road. They’re protected too, by the dubious virtue of living on a radar range. Humans are advised not to wander here either, so I’ve stood my hopeful watch upon the tarmac, pacing for awhile and then sitting a spell, and finally giving up to try later. The owls are meant to be diurnal, and the few left to San Diego County stay year-round.
There are none in sound or sight this morning. I walked out to the waves instead, through zipping plovers and the 8am-daily strains of the Star Spangled Banner. This is a complicated feeling. We think we own all this. We rank our right to own and use above all else, and still expect the land and sea and humanity at large to treat whatever bargains we’ve imposed as fair, to abide by our supremacy. Meanwhile, my heart swells at the rockets’ red glare.
The damp sand near the breakers lies strewn with gifts. Thumbnail-sized shells in ice-cream-cone swirls, jet-black scalloped ones, whole sand dollars furred with recent life. I made my beach offering thinking of nothing but this, as is proper. Walking away down the shore, my thoughts slide back to injustice and impermanence. Even this beauty – especially beauty – lives in many layers.
I have been walking barefoot for days – a thing I mostly cannot do and deeply miss. Sand is so forgiving. I’ve let my long hair down to sway in the slight salt breeze. The feeling altogether is near to mythological. I am kin to ancient beings of salt and seaweed, or ripple-haired heroines of song and story. Or possibly just myself at an age when such comparisons felt natural.
All of these — I imagine when I am back indoors with a comb — also hated picking out the tangles, and thought of cutting their storied locks right off. Instead I lie on the bed with the breeze stirring the wooden blinds, and float on the sounds of surf and shorebirds and the buoy in the harbor mouth. And it feels like home.