The habits of shorebirds

I was talking with a friend last week about our different philosophies of travel. We both love to do it, but he travels widely, while I tend to travel more deeply. I like to return to particular places over and over again, in different seasons, in order to gain an intimate knowledge of the territory. There are virtues to both approaches, of course. He has seen many places I have not, and sometimes I wonder if I should have spent more time seeing new things. But I know exactly where to go to watch hummingbirds in a frenzy over orange blossoms in January, where and when to see a huge aspen grove turn golden in New Mexico, and how to find an improbable patch of wild roses growing in the arid Badlands.

It’s October now, and I’m in north Florida, one of my favorite places to explore deeply. I usually spend time here in the winter and early spring — summer is for mountains — but for some reason I wasn’t ready for summer to end this year. So here we are in October, pretending that it hasn’t. From being here in January, February and March, I know the habits of the shorebirds. I know which ones hang out on the north Florida beaches and what they do at different times of day. I’ve taken hundreds of images of sanderlings and willets chasing the surf. I know how close I can get to each bird, and how quickly they will run — or fly –away.

And so when I got to the beach yesterday, I was surprised to find myself — not bored, exactly, but a bit restless, and unable to be captured by my surroundings. It felt odd and uncomfortable — and unusual for me. This is what I do; this is where I go to get carried away and absorbed, and instead I was feeling disconnected.

For awhile I watched my teenage son frolic in the surf; I love watching him interact with the natural world, and come loose from what moors him to the anxieties of childhood and regular life. There’s always this look of pure joy to it, and he never seems lighter than when he’s losing himself in the rhythms of the sea, or looking for snakes, or overturning rocks to find critters. After he stretched out on the sand to dry off, I wandered down the coastline, feeling the restlessness pushing up against my chest. I said hi to the nearest willet and listlessly fired off a few frames.

Then, up the waterline a bit, I spotted a slender white bird plying the shallow surf. I took note of the bird’s crisp white feathers and yellow and black accents: a snowy egret. This was new. I’m used to seeing egrets on rivers and in springs, but not on the beach. The wonders of October, perhaps. The bird turned its yellow eyes in my direction, and as we evaluated each other, I felt nature’s finger hooking into my heart and pulling me in again — finally.


The snowy gave me a valuable message — that it may be time to do something different, begin exploring a different geography, a different time and space. My mother often says that I never make a move unless and until I have to, and she’s right in a way. Both in my life generally and in more discrete things like my travels, I sometimes allow deep knowledge to tip into unquestioned routine. Fortunately, the habits of shorebirds awakened me to my own ruts and grooves. The familiar may be comfortable, but it may be time to orient myself toward my friend’s travel approach, and seek fresh landscapes.

But this afternoon, I’m still going back to look for the egret.



As I reorganize my image file, I’ve realized that the most photographed animal in my collection, other than wolves and mountain goats, is this bird, the willet. That’s probably because the willets hang out on my favorite beach at exactly the time I tend to be there. I like them a lot — they aren’t brightly colored, but I still think they are sleek, beautiful and graceful, like a grey silk suit.

I’ll be there again the week after Christmas, photographing more willets.