Photos from www.calliebowdish.com*****
Snowy Plover Chicks on Sands Beach at the Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve.
by Tim Walker
On an April day at Sands Beach, I stand with my back to the wind and sea, hands warming in pockets, looking up at a row of dunes fronted by a gently sloping apron of sand: the prime snowy plover habitat of Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve. Beyond the dunes are clouds with grey undersides, hinting rain. But this is California, where clouds, except in a few winter months, are purely decorative. Out of sight behind the dunes is Devereux Slough. Down the beach to my left, beyond the estuarine dunes, lies a long string of coastal bluffs and a shallow wooded terrace backed by the foothills and front range of the Santa Ynez mountains. Hanging over all, that flock of compact, dingy clouds like dirty sheep, oddly immobile in the high wind that presses on my back.
To my right the view of the coast is cut off by the loom of cliff at Coal Oil Point, a promontory named for the old-fashioned term for kerosene—a reminder of the crude oil, from natural offshore seeps, that has washed up on the beach since prehistoric times. Specks of tar dot the sand, mixed with other small flotsam in sinuous wave rows left by each successive crest of the ebbing tide. The beach here is never free of the industrial scent; but it’s really a natural part of the environment, and rather pleasant once you get used to it. The tar’s clingy and staining insistence underfoot is another matter. It kept me in past years from enjoying the beach; now I keep a pair of old shoes for beach wear, because I come here often. As a Snowy Plover Docent, I take a two-hour shift once a week, educating the public to share the beach with the plovers and other wildlife.
Today, in the blustery wind and blowing sand, the beach is all but deserted by people. I turn to look at the Pacific Ocean, hectic with motion, brilliant with foam, ablaze with afternoon sun. The waves break three and four deep, a few feet high at most—the big swells of the open ocean are blocked by the Channel Islands, which are visible on the horizon. Out beyond the surf and the oily calm of the kelp beds, the wind awakes whitecaps, churning the sea into a tableau of febrile radiance, like random neurons firing behind closed eyelids.
I want to surrender to the hypnotic rhythm of swell, breaker, and swash—but my enjoyment of the restless sea is flat and savorless compared to the fascination I felt as a young man. This familiar pang of disappointment inevitably recalls those lines of Wordsworth,
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
—powers of deep connection and ecstatic knowledge—how did mine become so sadly impaired?—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
In my 25th summer, I vacationed with friends at Cape Cod. We rented a cottage among the pines near Wellfleet, and made frequent trips to the beach. At the time I was reading The White Goddess and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and writing poetry in a rather metaphysical vein; and when I returned home I wrote “Auspex”—named for the augur of ancient Rome who read omens in the flight of birds—
The caper of the herring gull, unwitting clown,
The tern’s graceful flick, darting down.
Portents in the flight of birds may here be found
Filling the vacant air with mews and cries,
Filling the air with expectation and surprise.
Here sign and presence fly through teeming skies
And meet in sudden savage acts of piracy
And meet in recognition and swift intimacy.
Meetings ruled by chance or ruled by fate?
I teach myself to watch, to listen, and to wait.
What’s seen is writ in space
What’s heard is coded in time.
What’s found is learned by grace,
What’s learned is coded in rhyme.
My rapturous communion with the place was heightened by an alcoholic buzz and accompanied by the basso continuo of sea breezes sighing through the pines.
I never put a name to the pines that surrounded the cottage. My ability to differentiate bird species was only that of the average coastal inhabitant. But my poet’s love of wild nature was already starting to transmute—if that is the correct term for turning gold into lead—into a thirst for knowledge. On home ground I walked around with a field guide to the trees, learning their names and how to recognize them in all seasons. Could I have foretold there’d come a time when I can’t see the forest for the trees?
People don’t sunbathe at Sands Beach when the wind is blowing hard. Today I expect to see only walkers and joggers on the sand, and kite surfers on the water. I notice a young man down the beach, just beyond the break in the dunes where the slough opens to the sea when it floods. He has left his backpack high on the beach and is photographing a kite surfer. I need to ask him to move his stuff closer to the water, away from where the snowy plovers nest. I feel a brief hesitancy to approach him, because I’m not naturally outgoing, and he is the first beach-goer I will speak to today. But I’m up to the challenge, and start down the beach toward him.
The snowies live, breed, and raise their chicks on the bare sand of the beach, trusting to camouflage to keep their eggs and chicks safe. But when people throng to the beaches in fine weather, they can destroy well-camouflaged nests and chicks without even knowing it.
My walk parallels a single-stranded rope fence, marked with “No Trespassing” signs, that keeps the plover nests safe, at least from law-abiding beach users. But lesser disturbances can impose physiological stress on the snowies that accumulates with time. My job is to minimize disturbances by people and dogs, so the plovers won’t lose faith in Sands Beach as a place to raise their families.
As I draw near the young man—probably a student at U.C. Santa Barbara or, judging from his expensive equipment, the Brooks Institute of Photography—I check for a plover nest I recall seeing just behind where he stands. It’s still there. I approach him with a friendly smile, and launch into the first part of my docent spiel.
“Hi. I need to tell you about the nature reserve here. Snowy Plovers are a threatened species of shorebird, and right now they’re breeding here.” I turn toward the dunes and add, “There’s a plover sitting on a nest there, just behind the rope fence, next to that fence pole. You can use my field glasses if you like.”
He takes them and looks. The sitting snowy has her back to us, offering the better-camouflaged view, and she is looking over her shoulder at us. It takes him a few moments to pick her out from the background; when he does, his face registers his amazement.
The snowy’s mate stands out in front of the fence a few meters from us, his right eye cocked in our direction. He is the size of a large sparrow, and has that thrush-like plumpness common to all plovers; brownish-gray on top and snowy white underneath, with little black collar marks on either side of his neck. I point him out:
“That’s her mate. Our presence here is worrying him. We’re disturbing them both just by being here.” Then comes the rest of my preset speech. “To avoid disturbing the plovers, we ask that you not sit or leave things on the beach anywhere in front of the rope fence.”
“I need to take a few more pictures. Then I’ll leave.”
“That’s OK, but please move your backpack closer to the water.”
He seems to regret his intrusion, so I add:
“And feel free to come here any time. If you keep moving and don’t approach the rope fence, you won’t disturb the plovers.”
I don’t have any real authority to make him move, so politeness and flexibility are my best strategy. He won’t be sidetracked from his photographic project—but the plovers have taken him by surprise, lurking ninja-like right at his elbow without being seen. Perhaps, starting from this encounter, his awareness of the natural world will evolve.
I’ve seen it happen before. When I was his age, I wouldn’t have noticed the plovers either.
For a long time, I didn’t see the snowy egrets that were common along the shore of Long Island Sound, where I grew up. They are a striking bird, large and disposed to stay in the open where they’re easily seen—and beautiful: they were once hunted nearly to extinction so their showy white feathers could decorate ladies’ hats. I knew about them from my parents’ book of Audubon bird prints. But the background of the print was a Southern tidewater plantation, so I didn’t associate the snowy egret with my home in suburban New York. The egrets were there, but they were mysteriously invisible to me in my youth.
I didn’t miss them by avoiding the shore. Long Island Sound is incomparably the greatest open space close to where I lived; and as often as I needed fresh air and communion with nature and an uncluttered view with romantic associations of escape and adventure, I would sit at its edge and dream. The ocean’s edge was a dwelling for my spirit, and I always approached it with a sense of home-coming.
Nature as a realm of the imagination had great powers to distract and console. But I didn’t notice the details until one summer day, on a bicycle trek up the Boston Post Road, I stopped to rest at Harbor Island Park in Mamaroneck, where a boat basin and public park are right by the road. In the shallow edge of the basin a snowy egret stood in a few inches of water, stalking its next meal. Remembering that Audubon print, I gave that snowy egret its name with a momentous sense—perhaps like Adam naming the first creature that met his gaze?—a sense that before me lay a long task of naming creatures: every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air.
I didn’t see the harm in this, couldn’t foresee how my poetic eccentricity of vision might dissolve in the clear light of science. My paradigm for naming things was Edna St. Vincent Millay, learning her wildflowers from a field guide so she could use their names and evoke their images in her poetry. How could so modest a project take on a life of its own and remake the world?
On a midsummer day, I go down to Sands Beach with my teenage son Dana, who is also a plover docent, to collect food for the orphaned plover chicks in the nearby nursery. We carry an empty oversize bucket, the kind that construction materials are sold in.
Snowy plover chicks are easy to raise. They are mobile and self-feeding within hours of hatching, but need their parents’ protection and their warmth at night until they are properly fledged. Protection and warmth can be provided in an aviary. When the chicks are grown and released, all their normal adult behaviors will be instinctually hard-wired. The only hard part, accomplished by volunteers like us, is bringing their food up from the beach and giving it to them once an hour.
Snowies don’t feed in the swash of the surf, probing in wet sand like the whimbrels and sanderlings. Their favorite food is the beach hopper, a small terrestrial crustacean that lives on the kelp stranded on the beach. Choosing a half-buried clump of kelp, Dana tugs on the edge of it, turning it over. Hundreds of hoppers leap around like popcorn and strive to burrow their way to safety in the sand.
“Ooo, this is a good one.” Dana says, and plops down on his knees in front of the leaping, squirming mass to grab hoppers with both hands. The hoppers are harmless-looking, shaped like a pill bug, but compressed from side to side like the body of a shrimp, to which they’re closely related. Because the plover nursery has both young and older chicks, we harvest a mixture of small and large hoppers for them. We pop them into the bucket, and throw in a little sand for them to hide in and some kelp for them to eat. These hoppers will be good for a few days of plover meals; then other volunteers will make a fresh collection.
We lug the bucket up to the bluff-top and into the yard of Coal Oil Point Reserve Director Cristina Sandoval, where she lives with her husband Kevin and their two daughters, and where the plover nursery is. Cris needs to have animals around her, but dogs and cats are too hard on the environment, so she raises goats and chickens and keeps bees, whose honey she gives away in beehive-shaped jars bearing her own Plover Honey label.
Dana enters the aviary carefully, closing the door behind him. The plover chicks, alert but unafraid, watch him with eyes like obsidian beads. He strews a handful of hoppers on the floor for the chicks to chase down. A few hoppers escape through the aviary’s mesh, and Cris’s free-range chickens snap them up. Like the snowies, the chickens have been watching us and waiting for our bounty of juicy arthropods.
When an orphan chick fledges, the volunteers who cared for it gather to release it on the beach. Each chick we release is a token of our covenant to restore her kind to its rightful place, to restore balance to an ecosystem long overrun and abused by our kind—we release you, and bid you go forth and breed abundantly in the earth.
On an autumn day in my 30th year, I was on the road well before first light with one of my teachers, Paul Steineck. We were headed for Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in the New York borough of Queens, to watch the waterfowl and shorebirds resting on their southward migration. Paul, geology professor and hardcore bird watcher, had befriended me and was teaching me the rites and satisfactions of birding in the greater New York City area. Paul and I were about the same age, and we liked each other’s company.
At the State University of New York College at Purchase I was majoring in Environmental Studies—a choice that might have seemed out of character for me, having loved literature and disliked science in high school. As a poetry-loving teenager I had embraced that cultural disdain for science that seemed a natural concomitant of the humanities. But lately I had outgrown it—or something like that.
At Jamaica Bay, Paul and I followed a footpath along the edge of a tidal lagoon.
For me, in former times, communing with nature was a solitary affair. If I had a companion, I was no less lost in my own thoughts. But birding is a more active and sociable communion with nature. Unhurried, we moved along a predetermined path, with the sun behind us for good lighting. We constantly probed our surroundings with our senses, attuned to any movement or sound that betrayed an avian presence. At the same time, we were finely attuned to each other. If one stopped and raised his binoculars, the other was instantly alert to find what had caught his attention. Each sighting and identification was confirmed by consensus. We stopped, lingered, and moved on by unspoken agreement.
As we studied some songbirds at the edge of a small wood, Paul was stumped. Incredibly, to me, one of the birds was unfamiliar to him. It appeared to be a sparrow with hints of warbler-yellow on its face and breast.
“What the?” Paul muttered. “Got your field guide?”
Paul didn’t carry a field guide to the birds, because he so rarely needed it. As I reached for mine, one of the other bird watchers noticed our perplexity and approached us. He was a typical New York City birder, an elderly man wearing old clothes—his resemblance to a penniless vagrant calculated to deflect unwanted attention from any local thugs who might be strolling in the refuge. He also carried a stick.
He spoke diffidently, like a man who hopes not to overawe by his authority, and the impression made by his shabby appearance melted away.
“Do you know what that is? It’s a dickcissel. A stray from the Midwest. We don’t get them here very often.”
“Ah yes.” Paul said, memory returning.
I looked it up. The Dickcissel is allied to the crossbills, and is rarely seen outside the Mississippi River watershed. Would I be able to identify them in the future, assuming I never sojourn in a place where they are common? I had my doubts, but would add it to my life list anyway.
Our day list for this trip would mount to 57 species, including: grebes, cormorants, ibis, ducks and geese, raptors, 25 species of shorebird, gulls, terns, doves, and songbirds.
Occasionally there were squabbles in the avian community; but during migration birds are at their least territorial, so mostly they just savored their period of rest. Species with similar habitat preferences mixed together. There were plovers, sandpipers, turnstones, and other short-legged shore birds on the mud flats; egrets, herons, yellow-legs, and phalaropes in the shallows; the buoyant ducks, geese, and gulls floated in great sociable rafts out on the lagoon. The birds ate, they slept, they talked idly among themselves. Their peace and contentment settled on us like a benediction. The gilding glory of late afternoon sun sealed a day spent in harmony with self, companion, and all we surveyed.
If I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, at least the trees had assembled themselves into a pleasing unity. For the moment, I was content.
I didn’t so much outgrow that cultural disdain for science as find a way into science through forms of knowing I loved: art, philosophy, mathematics—making connections my younger self had overlooked. Once there, I learned that the world of things and the forces that act on them is an open book for us to read; only in the paradoxes of logic can we discern the unknowable. Science recognizes only these two possibilities: the knowable will, in time, be known; the unknowable will, in time, be proven to be unknowable.
And yet, a little knowledge is a wondrous thing. I still remember the struggle, as a child, to adjust my thoughts to the information that the Earth is round like a ball. All the evidence of our senses contradicts this. So it was—and is—only natural to wonder: if the surface is curved, how does the water cling to it the way it does, so well behaved, neatly occupying its basin, always seeking its level? It doesn’t make intuitive sense, and seems miraculous or willful. As John Ashbery says:
Sure the ocean keeps pace with us.
It would lose our respect if it didn’t.
Mainly it just wants to be here and loyal.
That’s what keeps it from splashing across the planet.
We can briskly dispel the wonder by recognizing that what we have here is a problem in statics, the analysis of forces on a physical system in equilibrium. Imagine dividing the oceans into many cubic volumes, each cube small enough that the forces acting on it are roughly uniform within its bounds. For a given cube, gravity pulls it down toward the earth’s center of mass—a direction that varies with position on the surface of the globe. It is pushed down in the same direction by the weight of superincumbent cubes of water, if any, and the weight of the atmosphere on top of that. It is supported by the cubes of water or land under it, and it is kept from flowing out sideways by the adjacent cubes of water or land. All the forces that would tend to displace it are in stable equilibrium. The world ocean is an immutable structure of such stable cubes of water, each defined and maintained by the balance of local forces, unchanging even as water and other stuff flows and swims through it.
My naïve intuition that the exact local forces where I stand extend to every other location around me is just a bias of existential self-centeredness. I’ve chosen to oppose this self-centeredness, to see things as they are. I’ve been willing to pay the price for this—to miss some of the mystery and poetry of life—but I sometimes have regrets.
Put another way: I love the quality of mystery about the buildings of Franklin Lloyd Wright. It’s easy to apprehend the shape of the rooms, but not to imagine how they fit together. If I lived in one of Wright’s houses, could I maintain that privileged sense of living in an optical illusion? Given the countervailing unease with uncertainty, could I stop my logical left brain from explaining away everything that makes these spaces so mysterious? And what residual charms would I find there once all the mystery is gone?
Later in my docent shift on this windy April day, I go for a stroll down the beach to check on the snowies. Walking slowly, I look ahead and try to catch sight of them before they can be spooked by my presence.
At the slough mouth, where the slough is closed to the sea as usual by a flat expanse of debris-littered sand, I see a lone adult acting nervous. He’s very aware of me, and not happy that I’m here: “like a protective father,” I tell myself approvingly. It’s the male snowy’s job to shepherd the brood toward adulthood, and this touches the core of my self-image like a subliminal caress.
I stop and search the area for his chicks. Nothing. I move down the beach a bit and stop to search again.
There’s a catch in my throat as a snowy plover chick charges out from behind a clump of kelp. My first chick of the season! Quick as thought, it caught and ate something—but now it sees me and is very still, trying to decide if I am a threat.
A ball of fluff with improbably long stick-figure legs, the chick reminds me of the magically animated puffs of soot in Spirited Away , Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 anime feature.
The nervous adult resolves the chick’s doubts about me with a warning call, and they scuttle out of sight together.
I wait a little, to see if there are more chicks in his care, but see none.
Sighting a snowy chick has made my day. If the chicks keep appearing and thriving and going on to make families of their own, then our efforts here are justified, and I feel that all’s right with the world, or at least with this small, beautiful corner of it.
Sands Beach was once a relatively barren place, before the rope fence and the no-trespassing signs, before the docents, when human disturbance kept ground-nesting birds from breeding here. But now this is the snowy plover’s space. They are the animating spirits of the beach, and I savor the sweetness of knowing it to be so.
For the moment, I am content—and I resolve that next time I walk the beach, I’m going to gather some of that sweet plover honey, stir in the creamy murmur of the surf, add a bit of beach sand with an evocative hint of coal oil, and give it away to everyone I meet.
About the author:
Tim Walker read, for pleasure, the complete novels of Charles Dickens while earning a BA in Environmental Studies at SUNY College at Purchase, and the complete novels of Anthony Trollope while earning a PhD in Geological Sciences at UC Santa Barbara. He has since worked as a computer programmer, healthcare data analyst, and used book seller. He lives in Santa Barbara with his wife and their son and two cats. His essays have appeared in Entropy Magazine.