Toad in the Hole

April 11, 2006


I had an appointment yesterday in Tiburon and got there 20 minutes early, so I drove on to a motel parking lot with a nice view of the local finger of the Bay and looked for birds. The ducks were all gone, not a shorebird in sight, but watching the water was relaxing after the freeway drive.

Then there was a sort of limited oversized blizzard, graceful white stars striking the water, rising again, striking again, pelting in quick succession slap slap, and slap slap slap, slapslap. Terns, a flock of half a dozen, gracile and pale and not big as terns go. Leasts? No, not quite right. There's a crappy (free) pair of binocs in a slot under the dashboard, and they gave me a close enough look to see that the only black on the wings was a sliver on the edge of the underside; some of the birds were in black-capped breeding plumage and some had just the youngsters' black mark on white head. I had to grab the fieldguide to be sure, since it had been so long since I'd seen them: Arctic terns!

We've seen most of our Arctic terns from boats out on the Pacific; maybe the storms had urged these inland, to grab little fish from the calm Bay waters. Probably they're on their northern migration, flying approximately from the other end of the Earth, following Summer (ha! optimists!) from pole to pole. An incredible trek, airborne under their own power, nothing but muscle and feather and that combination of instinct and memory that, in assorted proportions, directs migratory species across gulfs and ranges and places that probably weren't there when the mental maps were laid down.

And they're so small. Whittled by aeons of single-minded motion to swallowtails and blade-wings, every piece of them streamlined and knife-edged, wings long enough to float forever on oceanic winds and flexible enough to fold in an instant and seize gravity, plummet to the water's boundary for fish, stitching the two great oceans of the planet, air and water, pure intention incarnate moving the substance of the water to the air and land, of the far south to the far north and back again, stepwise and opportunistic, pausing to raise chicks and then -- if I'm right about what I was seeing, a family group -- traveling with them from one pole to the other with no purpose but the journey and its hard-bought sustenance. So small, so efficient, so focused, so strong, like a sword blade forged leaf by microscopically thin leaf over the lives and deaths of centuries.

What a privilege to see them on their way.

Posted at April 11, 2006 05:23 PM


Oh wow. I get such a vicarious thrill reading about all the western birds.

Every now and then one will wander this way. There was a Townsend's warbler down at the coast, I heard.

I haven't seen much this spring but have heard a lot more blue-winged warblers than usual. Parulas and L. Waterthrushes sing constantly down by the creek!

Posted by: Rurality at April 13, 2006 07:00 PM

This is my favourite northern lights (web)picture. In spite of it being in Alaska it most reminds me of what I could see four nights out of seven, 10 months of the year when I was growing up.

I heard on the radio yesterday that I missed thousands of sandhill cranes migrating north. Damn. I'll be sure to catch them on the way out in September.

Posted by: Pony at April 13, 2006 07:13 PM

Ru', you're tantalizing me. It's been 26 years since I've seen a blue-winged warbler.

Posted by: Ron at April 17, 2006 05:15 AM