How to Know the Birds: No. 73, I Love New York
- What: Sanderling, Calidris alba
- When: Tuesday, December 27, 2022
- Where: Fort Tilden, Queens County, New York
Icount myself an honorary New Yorker. My maternal grandmother was an nth-generation Manhattanite. My wife grew up in Queens. I’ve lived on Long Island, and my in-laws still do. My entry in Chris Santella’s Fifty Places to Go Birding Before You Die (2007) was Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. We’ve got a family plot, believe it or not, in Green-Wood Cemetery. I love New York.
What I love about New York more than anything else is the solitude, even the wilderness. Not everywhere in the city. But in more places than you might expect. Srsly. For example:
That’s my daughter and me and a friend (left–right), the only humans in sight, on a lonely expanse of Atlantic Ocean beach actually in New York City.
Here we are at a breakwater, staring intently at something:
Because, in microhabitat like that, you’re bound to find birds like this:
That’s a sanderling, one of several chasing the surf. We see sanderlings every year where I live in in Colorado, but it’s not the same. A sanderling away from ocean beaches is a fish out of water. Sanderlings running after the waves are about as close to perfection as you’ll ever get in nature. Winter-plumage sanderlings doing so on a New York City beach in late December might, just might, be the ultimate attainment of perfection in this universe.
Not gonna lie: I’ve got a thing with sanderlings and lonely ocean beaches in winter and New York City.
Nearby another sanderling had discovered a clump of Clathria prolifera, the red beard sponge:
Whatever was in that sponge, it was the good stuff:
I stayed with our spongiphilous sanderling for a while. I have this thing with leisurely study of cooperative birds close-up. It’s a recurring them here at “How to Know the Birds.” And I’m hardly the only one; there’s Bridget Butler and her “Slow Birding” initiative, for starters. Anyhow, I stayed with that bird. I could have stayed there forever. But it was the holidays. There were places to go, people to see. And so our visit to the beach, unhurried and contemplative, was over. But I had one last thing to do:
That bird. The one chasing the surf. I had to pause with that bird for just a moment. But oh what a moment. Because time stopped in that instant. In that instant, but not for an instant. Because when time stops, whether for a millisecond or a millennium, it stops.
Isn’t that what we covet more than anything else in this modern life?—to make time stop. I’m not talking about delaying the onset of aging and illness and decline, about the gradual unspooling of entropy in this universe and in our private lives. I take the view that we’re all swept up in the great river of time, powerless against the current. I am at peace with that, for I have discovered that it is possible to glimpse the infinite on the way downstream. As when a fleet-footed sandpiper, the same color as the frothy surf, pauses for an instant before the retreating surf suddenly races back up the beach. And when that happens, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we apprehend eternity.
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.