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Birds & Other States of Grace

“There arises first of all one question of the greatest importance and always attended with the same uncertainty, whether words, charms, and incantations are of any efficacy or not…”

Pliny the Elder


Last winter, chinook winds, crosswinds, dust devils, mistrals, and siroccos blew. Gentle zephyrs, persistent trade winds, and an airstream breezed by up high in the sky. Gust, gales, monsoons, twisters, typhoons, and whirlwinds crisscross the globe. When mariners described a “westerly” or a “southeaster”, this was where the wind originated, and the direction it was blowing from. When the wind blows parallel to the California coastline, it pushes away the water’s surface, and deeper, nutrient rich sea replaces it-- the upward movement of this deep, cold water, an upwelling. It feeds kelp and phytoplankton, and the rich food web grows from here, supporting a rich diversity of bird life. In autumn, with waterways freezing up north, the birds start to arrive to the San Francisco Bay to feed on the stirred-up nutrients: Surf Scoter, Lesser Scaup and Elegant Terns, all messengers of faraway places arrive on the winter winds. I live on the Richardson Bay, which makes up part of the San Francisco Bay. It’s wintering grounds for over 1 million shore and water birds.


Romans predicted the future by watching the flight formations of bird flocks. Skilled diviners would counsel the Caesars and generals about the fate of the empire by watching the frenzied dips of the swallows or the way hundreds of crows filled an empty tree. Farmer’s wives would count the chicken eggs to divine and outcome. Each morning as I walk Flora Jayne, we come across a wide array of birds. A kingfisher perched on a dock, night herons stealth pooping on cars from trees, a great blue heron strolling the marina docks like a captain returning to his ship, tufts of white egrets in the wetlands. What I’m seeing fewer of as the days grow longer are the ruddy, bufflehead and scaup ducks bobbing into the water for food. The surf scoter and loons have also headed back north. One of my favorite shorebirds are dunlins, with tear drop shaped bellies and long legs, they scurry over the exposed mudflats on low tide like a collective verb. They too are headed back to their northern feeding ground in Alaska.


I watch a flock rise from the flats and change from squat, nervous birds on land, to a single impulse of grace in the sky. They ascend, circle, swoop down over the surface of the bay, synchronized. Their migration north reminds me that spring comes and goes fast. As winter weather lingers, spring feels more like faith than inevitability. Yet the days grow longer and the air starts to smell like plants budding and pink jasmine blooming.


The sky is a veritable superhighway of birds migrating back north. Snipes and Storm petrels leave South America and cross the equator. Plovers fly 2800 miles non-stop from Hawaii to Alaska. Arctic terns travel from Tierra del Fuego to Western Alaska and back each year, over 18,000 miles. The marbled godwit travels north along California and Baja Coast. They battle predators and forge through storms. They fly on the faith that their feeding grounds will not be filled in with cement, paved over, built upon or drained. They undertake the migration north because there will be more space to breed in wetlands and longer daylight hours help them find enough food to feed their young.


As I watch the dunlins cluster into flocks and the flocks into formations, I wonder about the art of divination. People are always looking for ways to avoid uncertainty. But the journey, the migration, is the constant unknown. For now there are only the shorebirds leaving Richardson Bay, their formations are the ancient language of fear and hope, of flight and faith. They look at times like a chant or a prayer for this beautiful, uncertain world and its brief states of grace.

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