Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Winging It

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Ever since I was a little girl, one of my greatest pleasures has been to watch gulls, terns, and other seaside birds wheeling and soaring above the surf. Sometimes I think there must not be any purer white than the white breast of a gull or tern. The grey, black, and white plumage of most of the gulls and terns in our region (Northeast North America) are so right against the greys, greens, and whites of the surf as it breaks on our rocky coast.

Yesterday as we watched the sea from one of our two sacred spots, I gave up reading my very good novel (more on that another time), and gave in to watching the birds. In the sky, these were mostly Herring Gulls, of course, with a few Greater Black-Backed Gulls once in a while, and the occasional Ring-Billed and Laughing Gull. (If we get offshore this week, we’ll see Common and Arctic Terns and perhaps a few alcids and tubenoses.) Small groups of Common Eiders flew by close above the water (where air resistance is least), and Cormorants (Great and Double-Crested) passed too, mostly one at a time. A few peeps flitted on the rocks below, but I was too sun-drowsed to stir enough to try to identify them.

What I noticed again about these birds that spend their lives almost entirely on and in the air and water was that their wings are almost always long, narrow, and pointed. Many other water birds, especially those with swift flight, such as ducks and sandpipers, also have slender pointed wings. This is not news, of course, and any field guide points out this characteristic.

I was about to write that the gracefully pointed white wings of gulls are very much like the gracefully pointed white sails of the many pretty sailing vessels that dotted the blue waters here yesterday…but it’s the other way around, of course: the sails are like the wings. An evolutionary biologist, or a physicist, or an ornithologist could explain why and how these shapes evolved as they did, but even I understand innately that the shapes are molded to the flows and pressures of air and water, lift and surf…Still, there seems to me a poetry of form at play here…there is a lovely lyricism in those pointed snow-white wings against the surf and sky.

There’s a sonnet in there, somewhere.

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