Tonight the sky is soaked in saffron. The dunes, the western shoreline condos, the wind-swept beach, bathed in yellow light. A solitary fisherman casts a golden line above the gilded cresting surf. The skimmers have moved. High water has inundated their breeding grounds. Leaning into the wind, they congregate forsaken on the sand, their ruby-red feet, as thin as pencils. Suddenly, the flock panics: Peregrine! I have seen this falcon before, a powerfully built young bird, heavily streaked. Skimmers will drive away gulls nearly twice their size but are no match against this hunter. Above the high water mark of broken shells and green seaweed, a handful of flightless chicks and several others with poor flying skills huddle together. The falcon's first strike has failed. But hunger drives her again, high into the wind, a sharp shadow against the bright sky.For a long moment the peregrine stands still. Then turning, ever so slowly, she folds her pointed wings and hurtles to the ground.
Necessity governs the lives of wild creatures, skimmers included. But there is
also in the order of creation, an overarching beauty and a promise--disclosed in the succession of each summer's day, in the fertility of the species, in the substantive bounty of ocean and bay.
In my visits to these barrier beaches I have been singularly drawn to these peculiar birds-- beguiled by their squeaky, barking voices; their unique feeding habits; their attention to filial duties; their gumption as they chase intruders; their tenacious will to prosper. And ever since that late August night, on what may have been my third or fourth visit, I have come to watch them fly: It happened this way: On this late afternoon, a friend and I had been observing the colony for several hours. The bathers have left. The beach is empty. Ten minutes before sunset, unexpectedly, the adult skimmers lift off the shore in a slow-breaking wave. The birds gain altitude. They circle low over their nesting grounds and the adjoining waters in a precise, overlapping pattern--- a repeating great figure eight. The host of skimmers, almost 300 birds, moves as one, synchronous, swift, silent -- a sacred wheel of shorebirds, twisting, turning, rising, falling. But for the breeze and the lapping of the water on the sand there is silence. We have stopped talking and taking pictures. We can only watch. The flight continues well beyond sunset. The flock moves tirelessly, buoyant wind-winged shapes, alternating light and dark in the manner of shorebirds. And still the birds fly-- in that same rhythm, that same courtly cadence--an avian pageant, revealing the sublime wonder of skimmers on this ordinary public beach in the suburbs.