Thursday, November 24, 2016

Birds of the Quarry, 5 - The Gulls

Gulls must be the most neighborly of creatures at Halibut Point. They don't mind your civilized presence, at a certain remove. They never take their eyes off you, but they rarely scold either. They never try to hide. If you get too close they lift off into the air.

Gulls come to Halibut Point for some of the same reasons I do, stepping away from crowds and cares to straighten out their feathers. They animate the quarry where the stillness might otherwise seem ghostly. They have an aboriginal presence when I walk unannounced into their busyness.

At the quarry they gather amicably for a fresh-water bath without squabbling over scraps. Generally they stick to the center to minimize intrusion.

The confabs of Herring gulls and Great black-backed gulls sometimes include Ring-billed gulls.

Sooner or later they get on to preening and drying chores on a nearby  ledge, or circle up and out to prospects at sea.

The masters of flight decelerate with tail and body arched, wings articulated for split-second adjustments, primary feathers opened on the up-stroke to lessen drag and maintain lift. They maneuver as smoothly as we reach for a doorknob.

They pull themselves through the air by reaching forward with their wings, not by pushing them to the rear. Wingtips bend and rotate to the task of propulsion. The wings scull in figure-eights to contribute forward momentum. Counter-intuitively, to our logic, the power stroke ends with the wing swept far forward.*


Rising off the water is hard work for heavy duck-like birds that taxi on their feet and flap vigorously.  Birds favored to soar, like gulls, achieve lift by simply extending their cambered wings in a light wind. Air flowing faster over the upper surface than below it pulls the bird upward passively. Similar pressure differentials make a spinning baseball curve and are mimicked in aircraft design.

Adaptations in the gull's  honeycombed skeleton, its feathers and its diet give it advantages for inhabiting all the continents and oceans of the earth. Modern anatomical research illuminates these facts without reducing the wonder of their coordination into a particular life. That wonder can be freshened with every ramble at Halibut Point. 

* See "Flight" in Chris Leahy's The Birdwatcher's Companion.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Birds of the Quarry, 4 - The Cormorant

Turbulent times prompt a cormorant to still waters at Halibut Point.

Immigrants of various races gather in sanctuary. The cormorant stands on immense incongruous feet. 

It's adaptation to deep diving comes at the expense of buoyancy and waterproofing. The cormorant comes ashore periodically to dry its wings to stay afloat. Those wings beat laboriously to keep it in the air unlike the soaring gull. Its dense leg musculature excels on the chase but burdens its flight.

Nevertheless it flies. It out-swims fish under water then takes to the air.

It maintains a regal posture at the edge of the quarry as it does along the rocky ocean shoreline.

On land it appears more wistful than saturnine.


Its flight may be termed expedient but it does transcend distance and gravity. It strains to work itself up off the water. It launches easily from a promontory.

To look steadily at a cormorant is to see the embodiment of a hunter in its niche.

It looks back through a wary turquoise eye, holding the secrets of its sovereignty below the surface.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Platform for America

At the entrance to Halibut Point State Park two emblems remind visitors of government's mandate to serve the land and the people. The people have chosen their governors this week on Election Day. At the end of the week, on Veterans Day, we will honor those among us who served in the national defense.

The following week, on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, we will recall President Lincoln's consecration of a battlefield in the most perilous time for the nation, and the hope that it "shall have a new birth of freedom." The final week of November brings the celebration of Thanksgiving.

Eloquence can emerge from episodes of great struggle such as these historic occasions of re-purposing. It may yet arise from the consternation we are now experiencing. Clarity may return us to community, or chaos may bruise us further.

The eloquence may be in speech or in action.

It will come, instinctively or by cultivation, from the truest source: the still, small Voice that tempers the slide between desire and indignation.

Within the current dissonance we will have to attune to the quiet guides and uncluttered decorum of reconciliation. We will have to accept a personal role in the State of the Union. We will have to envision a spirit of mutuality.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Birds of the Quarry, 3 - The Mallard

Mostly, mallards do things in pairs. Fortunately the stylist of creation distinguished the genders so that we can follow the sexes separately, if not individually as they do in matrimony.

During their nuptials the mallards are mutually appreciative and theatrical.

Then they go off together to set  up a nesting site. Mrs. Mallard seems to have the deciding say in its location, as she's the one who keeps solitary vigil over the eggs and manages the welfare of the ducklings. Her camouflaged coloration must safeguard her during the vulnerability.

It is the only time of year when the gentlemen mallards keep their own company exclusively.

The nest may be secluded at a considerable distance from the Halibut Point quarry, although it is probably near at least a puddle large enough to give safety to the brood when it hatches. Ducklings can swim immediately after emerging from their shells.

Then they begin the serious comedy of preparing to fly.

The National Audubon Society  website looks past the commonness of mallards, their predilection for urban parks and for children's bread-crust handouts. "Although barnyard and feral ducks may be dumpy and ungainly creatures, the ancestral wild Mallard is a trim, elegant, wary, fast-flying bird." With a strong tailwind in migration they have been known to travel 800 miles in 8 hours, at altitudes above 2,000 feet. They may lose up to half their body weight during this exertion.

Alternatively they may stay to endure our winter. Beneath waterproof outer feathers the ducks have a snug layer of down.

When the quarry freezes over the mallards move down to Folly Cove to forage along the shoreline. They have neither nerves nor blood vessels in their feet.

They have already made their familial commitments for the year ahead.

In spring the mallards follow softening weather to hospitable wetlands throughout the Park. The drake and the hen, separately arrayed for their parts in the union, display the common blue speculum on their wings.

The Prince of Iridescence
Perfectly contoured feathers keep the duck afloat or aflight, as needed. Their crisp lines seem more painted than sprouted as though drawn for the pleasure of a sublime eye more demanding than survival itself.