An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of November 8, 2005

SNOWY PLOVERS ON
A WINDY BEACH

Folks at the five-star Hotel Reef Yucatan on the beach 10 miles north of the hacienda (see it at http://www.reefyucatan.com/ ) have invited me to give their guests weekly talks about the Yucatan's plants and animals. I'm paid nothing but get a day of internet access and a free meal, so it's woth it to me. When I was there issuing my Newsletter last Tuesday I finished in time to take a walk on the beach in the late afternoon.

Blustery wind off the water, straight from the north, blew knee-high waves onto the dun colored sand, piling up froth that sometimes gathered and rolled inland like tumbleweeds. The low sun, shining through salt spray suspended over the beach shined weakly, somehow sulkily and raw. Wave action made the water so brown that not a hotel guest swam on the beach, hanging around the big pool instead. After a day at the computer the salty, fishy air smelled good, and I walked along the beach in a mood set by the edgy sunlight.

In some places along the beach long, pure deposits of small, white seashells had been washed up and I remembered how my Natchez friend Karen, who visited here last winter, could spend hours sitting in such places looking for perfect shells to take home to her mama. In other places dark brown heaps of dried-out seaweed piled up, long ribbons of it violently fluttering in the wind.

I was approaching such a mess of seaweed when movement caught my eye -- several small, fast running, toothpick-legged birds with gray upperparts and white underparts. The binoculars showed them to be six Snowy Plovers in winter plummage, the black, broken collar of summer birds now just gray smudges on their upper breasts. You can see this plummage at http://www.bobsteelephoto.com/Species/snpl.html

As a group, plovers are medium-sized to small shorebirds with short beaks, necks and tails. They walk or run, not hop, as they forage for insects and small marine animals, and they nest on the ground. Probably the best-known plover to Americans is the Killdeer, which is one of the larger plovers and a species uncharacteristically found inland. Killdeer are eight inches long but Snowy Plovers are only a little longer than five.

As soon as I saw the plovers I sat on the sand and the birds stopped running. Each bird mechanically faced into the wind, then simply stood perfectly still while dingy-white gobs of spume blew past and brown ribbons of dead seawed lashed all around. Motionless now, the birds were so well camouflaged that they were almost invisible. There hunched in the wind and old-feeling sunlight I felt invisible, too.

It was one of those quintessential moments when the mood of a certain place, time and circumstance expresses itself perfectly, penetratingly. The whole day the beach, the sun and the wind had built to that very moment, and very soon the sun would sink, the wind would lay, the waves would calm down, and the plovers and I would drift away. But at that very moment everything was as intense as it could be, saying completely what it had to say, and the plovers and I were just hanging on, like gossamers momentarily snagged on a treelimb.

I could have loved the ocean so well that I'd never have been able to wander far from it, but I was born an inlander destined to be enchanted not by the art of waves, the mingled odors of salt spray and fish, and crabs skittering across sand, but by shadowy swamps along lazy rivers, abandoned fields of goldenrod, and cicada droanings among oaks, maples, ash and hickory. I can see why some religions incorporate reincarnation into their beliefs, for sometimes it seems almost too unfair that in life we are only one thing, and not another.

If I had been born at the seaside I think those years I spent hermitting in the Mississippi woods would have been invested instead in beachcombing, just wandering day after day, never tiring in the least of the sound of the surf, the moods of the waves, and of the beach suddenly stirring with quick little eruptions of plover, sandpiper and sanderling.