It seems everything in life is tentative these days, with restrictions, guidelines, and mandates changing day by day. It’s difficult to know what to expect when visiting even the most familiar locations, but when you find something truly unexpected, it can also be a pleasant surprise.
I’ve not been able to visit the beach as much as I’d like these past few months, what with different beaches closing public parking, the occasional tropical storm disturbance, work deadlines, and general craziness. But on a morning visit, walking along undulating dunes at high tide, I got a wonderful reminder that no matter the busy-ness of life, when you can finally get back out there, the birds will be waiting.
I wasn’t able to visit the beach I’d intended, thanks to full parking lots and weekend traffic. That meant venturing further south, but the distance was well worthwhile as it led to far quieter, less crowded beaches. A long amble south gave way to glorious ocean views and vigorously crashing waves. Few birds were about, as it was high tide and not good foraging conditions, but several sanderlings and ruddy turnstones – always frequent guests on the beaches – were nearby, along with a raucous pair of laughing gulls giggling it up and a lone willet pacing along the shore.
But one bird looked a bit different. It was neither as small as a sanderling nor as large as a willet. Its bill was distinctly heavy and plover-esque, and its legs were longish. Its mottled plumage was obviously in autumn molt, but still showed a bit of finer patterning on the upperparts and darker smudginess below, with a whitish barrier between the upper and lower.
This was a pattern I’d seen before, in research and field guides, yet not in person. A closer look as the bird took short flights down the beach ahead of my walking path revealed a primarily white tail, very long wings with sharp wingtips, and a bit of a white streak in the wing. The flights weren’t long, the bird didn’t pass me, and as this wasn’t a birding occasion, I didn’t have my field guide on hand for instant reference.
That’s okay, we don’t need to identify every bird right away, so long as we can remember the clues. That overall size, the body markings, the white tail, the heavier bill… Once home an hour later, a quick consult with two different field guides for comparison, as well as some research on probable ranges in mid-August, and I had my answer – that reluctant bird, that unexpected guest on the shore, was a black-bellied plover.
A new lifer.
I haven’t gotten one of those in over a year, and a chaotic year its been – and still is – in every respect. But in the end, the birds are still there, and there are still new things to discover. This too shall pass, and the birds will be waiting for us all.