Take a look at this image of terns — not because it’s anything spectacular. In fact, those terns were but specks on my visual horizon, so this is a dramatic crop to show just one thing: the size differential between the Caspian Terns and the Forster’s Terns I wrote about in a previous post.
The large birds with their black caps and thick orange bills are Caspian Terns. In the center of the photo, nestled among these terns and gulls is a much smaller Forster’s Tern, positively Lilliputian next to his cousins.
I received a comment here with some excellent Caspian Tern photos and resources. Be sure to check them out. The images and information do these beautiful birds justice:
California Least Tern
Also present at Crown Beach that day was a solitary representative of the endangered California Least Tern species, possibly the most contentious tern in Alameda. (More details on that in a moment.) The Least Tern is recognizable by the white patch across the brow:
I love terns but I’m no tern expert, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I didn’t realize I was photographing a Least Tern until I saw the full-screen image at home. That’s the simultaneous freedom and hazard of not chimping as a photographer. If I’d had my new waterproof, flotation device of a binocular set with me, I would have known this. But then, I’d also have been packing 50 pounds of gear for a walk on the beach.
Alameda Wildlife Refuge . . . or VA Hospital
Now for the contentious part. Least Terns nest in an area of the former Alameda Naval Base, and it’s just about time for them to sidle into their nesting grounds for the season. Golden Gate Audubon’s Friends of Alameda Wildlife Refuge “trains and maintains a corps of volunteers committed to protecting and enhancing the wildlife of the proposed Alameda National Wildlife Refuge” — proposed being the operative term.
Although this is one of few precious nesting areas for the endangered Least Tern, the Veterans Administration and the Navy are developing a plan to put a hospital, office complex and columbarium in the area. Various environmental groups including the Sierra Club maintain that the plans for the VA facility do not meet proper specs in terms of protecting the tern habitat. (Proponents of the VA’s plans, of course, do not agree.)
Making Room for Shorebirds
And this is where the bigger picture comes into play. You were probably wondering when I’d get to that in this meandering text. I thought how often I walk Crown Beach in Alameda, watching the Black-bellied Plovers and Western Sandpipers scuttle through low tide for their snacks. Countless joggers, ears stuffed with ear buds, plow through these flocks of birds without even noticing them, scattering them during their precious feeding hours. There have been some studies suggesting that human and canine interruptions during foraging operations do, in fact, disturb the birds’ eating patterns and cause them to expend more energy than they should in escaping these hazards.
In the times I’ve walked the wetlands and beaches photographing birds, I’m often alone in even noticing them, with the exception of birders. The average park user doesn’t seem to to even see, let alone appreciate these wild and beautiful ambassadors in their midst, especially the smallest among them, the little shorebirds. In fairness, it takes some element of connection with these animals to become an interested party. I wasn’t always aware of this diverse tableau of birds hugging the ebb and flow of tide. I saw just “sandpipers” — not the distinct colorations, the nuances in behavior, the way they cock their heads to assess how big of a risk I am — this quiet nation, as Hugh and I like to call them, of shorebirds clustered at waters’ edge.
For me, working with birds at the wildlife hospital, and seeing them through the splendor of a telephoto lens brought me fast into their world — more keenly aware of my own presence and impact on their habitat, their home.
And so, an issue like the development of sensitive habitat becomes not just a pragmatic reading of a news bit, but a genuine concern for these beings you’ve come to know and love. It becomes impossible to disconnect the destiny of these entities with whom you share your daily space, from your own in a way. Jane Goodall, in Visions of Caliban concludes that the fate of both master and slave rests in the acknowledgment of our interdependence. If we are to consider ourselves master — and many of us humans, do — there’s much to contemplate in the notion of how we ourselves stand to gain or lose as the Least [Terns] among us gain or lose.
If you tend to pass by these huge flocks of shorebirds without much notice, you might be surprised at the variations among the birds — the hierarchies, the scuffles over turf, but also the generally peaceful collection of birds across species, assembling at low tide, alighting en masse to follow the shoreline as it recedes toward the center of the Bay. There is, for me and mine, a tremendous peace in hearing their calls — and knowing that our Bay and shore is still fruitful enough to sustain these quiet nations living just under the auspices of our own.