Friday, October 25, 2013

Murmuration



My brother Joel is coming to town next week to photograph oceanside birds in their fall migration. We had a grand time last summer in a canoe on the Essex River Basin. He has the kind of camera that can make full-frame pictures of osprey fledglings in their nest from sixty yards away.

We are advised that Andrews Point offers optimal conditions in the coming weeks for intersecting the year’s greatest concentration of birds on the coastal flyway. One day last week I headed over to scout the terrain, the morning sun angles, and early migration movement. Other than eiders along the shore there wasn’t much that I could see. But the balmy day soothed away concerns about bird absence. I met a new friend.

Lois is well versed in natural history topics local and global. As she warms up to the subject you realize that local and global are one thing, like changing perspective with the focus ring on your binoculars. In the unseasonable warmth she speculated on whether the bird migrations were delayed by climate change.

“Let me tell you about something else to look for,” said Lois. “Murmuration. You know about the ability of shorebirds to maneuver wingtip to wingtip, swerving as if with one mind in tight formation? In the spring migration we saw clouds of sandpipers flocking by in perfect coordination. Nobody knows how they do it.”

Murmuration. We don’t understand it but are comforted to have a word for it. I get that feeling at the doctor’s office sometimes, or at weighty thoughts like love and war.

On the way home to Lanesville I turned in to Folly Point, the western shoulder of Halibut Point. A distant view of ‘murmurating’ birds quickened my scramble over the ledges. I don’t have the kind of camera equipment that enables Joel to immortalize images crisply. But I managed this snapshot souvenir of an aerial ballet obligingly performed for me, to illustrate the concept. I’m a visual learner.


At the tip of Folly Point are the remnants of an old quarry. The gyrating flock disappeared behind its rim. I crouched low, running behind the grout pile to approach as close as possible without being seen, more bent on  speed than safety. But rounding the final probable screening I was greeted by mere cormorants. The ‘sandpipers’ had moved on.

 
The rocks were flat and dry enough to permit passage around the next corner where I got my reward. A cormorant in wing-drying mode stood like a conductor directing the assembled shorebirds. I worried that each closer picture would be the last. 

 
The cormorant swam off when its sense of safe space was violated. The shorebirds stayed on as though they’d earned that spot and needed a rest. I aimed for d├ętente, perching where we could all pursue our interests amicably. As we watched each other they relaxed onto ‘one stilt.’

 
Without a field guide I wasn’t sure what species I was looking at, especially since fall plumage is often less distinctive than at breeding time. I postponed the left-brain satisfaction of identification to enjoy a grand moment with creatures who had made their arrival on wings.

Sanderling and black-bellied plover, fall plumage
One of the birds looked smaller than the others in the gathering. Back home I consulted the website gallery of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to authenticate the caption above. It confirmed that both species had just returned from their arctic tundra breeding grounds. The plovers may winter anywhere from here to South America. My little sanderling, whether outnumbered, mellow-natured, or momentarily sated was more companionable than in some situations, according to the article:
 
Sanderlings are easy to find on sandy beaches from fall through spring. Pick a beach with a low, gradual slope and walk along the water’s edge. Look for small shorebirds running back and forth in sync with the waves—these are likely to be Sanderlings. While other shorebirds such as plovers and Willets may feed alongside Sanderlings on these outer beaches, this is truly the Sanderling’s domain; these plucky birds often aggressively defend their feeding territories at water’s edge from other shorebirds.
 
Halibut Point seen from Folly Point
With a new word and a new bird for the day, both hemispheres of my brain were gratified. And we had a new angle on Halibut Point, revealing even more impressively the grout pile of quarry waste. Birds have their genius but our enterprise leaves the bigger mark.

1 comment:

  1. I think Sami and Marcus mumurate. Much of my mumuration is to avoid collisions. I wonder if I could redirect my murmuration energy to be more for the pleasure of a dance.

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