Early morning light on the beach has the quality of making everything seem newborn. This is how a Florida beach looked for more than two hours one day last winter.
Early morning light is pale, allowing us to see familiar birds in a different way than in full sunlight. Unconsciously, we may also see things in that light as newly born because it is the start or birth of another day. However, in those moments on a beach when the sun is low or peeking through a cloud and no one else is there, the world is bathed in subtle color. It is then that I notice so much.
Birds fly out of the palest blue sky that is sprinkled with pink clouds. Sanderlings scurry along wet sand that has a touch of mauve. A gull flies across the face of a three-quarter moon while a brown pelican sails beneath it. A lesser black-backed gull yawns. Laughing gulls, including one that lost a foot, are cast in orange from the sun. Later the gulls will return to white and gray as the sun rises higher in the sky. Now gulls are flying out of the sky into that low sun. There’s no waiting, they just come.
Sunlight bounces off rolling rows of white caps. In shallow water are dozens and dozens of small bits of shell and stones. As the water of retreating waves goes back to the sea, multiple small Vs are formed as it flows by them. Everything looks newborn in this light.
Turnstones And Gulls
Ruddy turnstones are in the sand pecking at anything and everything that can be turned over. Their colors, white, rust and red, look so bright. Turnstones, as their name suggests, turn over everything that may have a morsel. They go to shells, leaves and piles of dried seaweed that are many times their size. I once watched a large pile of dried seaweed being turned over and saw a turnstone appear beneath it doing the lifting.
They have a short, slightly upturned bill, which is placed under the object to lift it. When they walk off, a ring-billed gull runs to investigate what they were pecking. This is better than the treatment they were afforded yesterday morning. A laugher chased one on the ground, then another landed and chased after the turnstone, nipping the little guy on the tail. This occurred several times. This morning they’ve got the run of the place.
A few years ago, my birding class was curious about two turnstones that we saw. I realized later that these sandpipers stood out because they are colorful, especially in contrast to the other sandpipers, sanderlings, willets and red knots, which are drab in comparison. I now explain how they walk with their heads held slightly down and their necks pumping back and forth. I also tell them to look at the blackish “oxbow” pattern on their upper breast. At the moment, a turnstone is taking a long vigorous bath in shallow water. With wings beating, it helicopters into the air six-inches or more twice. Each time it comes down to the same spot. I have to wonder if it’s shaking off the water or simply feeling good.
Laughing gulls, abundant here, fly languidly near me looking huge. When they leave, the sun appears to have bathed the sand in red and yellow. Herring gulls are large at 25-inches and bigger than laughing gulls, ring-billed gulls and the occasional lesser black-backed ones that appear here. The herring gulls are immature, which means that they have a moderate brown and white breast, belly and back with pale band-aid colored legs and feet. The bird’s overall appearance, in its first winter is aesthetically unpleasing. However it is a formidable scavenger. I once watched one repeatedly grab and shake the remains of a dead fish until the remains looked partially alive. The gull was getting bits of flesh that I didn’t think the skeleton had. The bird would periodically walk away and soon return to get another piece. They will attempt to steal half a fish from the bill of another gull and do away with it. Years ago, I watched an adult one on a Montauk beach scoff down a few starfish which seemed almost impossible to swallow. While I have never found them to be pleasant looking, this morning this one looks okay. It seems as newborn as the pink inside of a shell lying open on the sand.
A snowy egret is hunting in the water. The name derives from the French little egret, aigrette, a diminutive of heron aigron. These 24-inch herons are all white with black legs and bright yellow feet which gives them the nickname “golden slippers.” The feet are used to stir the muck and raise prey. With gauzy white breeding plumes rising in the breeze this lithe and delicate looking bird has my attention. By the turn of last century, the snowy egret had been slaughtered in great numbers by plume hunters, but under the protection of The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, has made an astonishing recovery. Now it walks near me, gets nothing and landing, cuts through a swath of yellow in the water, lifts off landing 50 yards away. I start to walk after it, but the fishing there is also no good as the bird lifts off and disappears down the beach.
By now I’ve been here nearly two hours and the early light is gone, taking the magic of early morning with it. That light didn’t abruptly leave, but did so gradually without me noticing. When I’m absorbed with a bird, I don’t pick up on subtle changes and time seems to have flown. There’s no real moment when it leaves. It’s gone when you notice that nothing looks newborn. However, it should be back tomorrow.