The Mast-Head: Beachcombing

Small birds are not my thing

Approaching Indian Wells, I stopped my truck on the beach to look at a flock of small sparrow-like birds. It was about a week ago. I figured I would take a few last casts of the season into the ocean. Big bluefish and a few striped bass remained around, or so I had heard.

Small birds are not my thing. To me, all the sparrows and warblers look pretty much alike. Not that I wouldn’t want to be able to tell the varieties apart, it’s just that I didn’t learn about them as a kid and that there are too many of them that move too fast to truly get to know at this busy point in my life. Seabirds, gulls, raptors, these I take a stab at identifying.

Yet the flock drew my attention. From a distance it looked like the birds were hopping. Once the truck was no longer moving and I peered through binoculars, I could see what they were up to. Each bird would jump onto a stalk of beach grass, its feet clasping around the fat seed heads. The bird and stalk would drop to the ground together, the bird would let go, the stalk would whip up, and the bird would pick at the seeds that had fallen. The process would be repeated.

This was, mind you, on the Amagansett National Wildlife Refuge section of the beach, where there are no snow fences on the natural, sloping fore dunes. Elsewhere, I have noticed lately, snow fence does indeed trap windblown sand, as intended, but also creates a barren microenvironment of little interest to the birds. It crossed my mind to wonder if anyone had ever done a rigorous impact study or really asked whether all the miles of snow fence were, on balance, doing good.

Birds’ adaptations to the Long Island environment never fail to amaze me. Though there were no fish interested in my offerings that day, scoters dove just offshore, picking something, I knew not what, off the bottom. Gulls worked the edges of the bar at low tide, eating small fish or invertebrates exposed by the outrushing water.

The flock of seed eaters moved away to the west before I could get a good enough look at them to try to find later in a bird book. There was plenty more beach for them to comb.