The Mast-Head: Come and Gone

I joke with my friends that paying attention to the birds is a sign of age

   Among the subtle markers of the inevitable turn of the year is the arrival here of shorebirds from their northern breeding grounds. For a couple of weeks now, their numbers have grown along the Gardiner’s Bay beach as they fatten on the shoreline’s rich supply of food.
    Young sanderlings are the most obvious, or perhaps simply the most oblivious, near our house. Tottering along on their toothpick-thin black legs, they come within a couple of yards if you sit still. Floating with my head just above the water as evening comes, I can get close enough to one to study its gray markings, tiny black eyes, and sturdy black bill, which it jams again and again into the sand.
    There is plenty for them to eat here. Dozens of small crustaceans flee as my feet stir up the bottom. Above the shifting waterline, sand fleas hop incessantly until some bird makes them a meal. Perhaps I notice these things more than I used to; I joke with my friends that paying attention to the birds is a sign of age.
    A quartet of larger shorebirds, dowitchers perhaps, have been here for a couple of weeks. At least, I think they are the same group that has been passing by now and then. Dusk comes, and they rapidly wing west. Before long, they will quit this beach for good and head for their distant, southern, winter home. Something about their impending exit, even as I know they will be back tomorrow, makes me think of my own mortality.
    According to the calendar, this is the height of summer, yet the signs are unmistakable: fall will come soon. You can see it in the constant urgency with which the shorebirds rush back and forth hunting for food.
    The sanderling I watched this week paused in its path to briefly preen. Something on its thick, white breast needed attention. I blinked and it was gone.