Marbled Godwit Standing on One Leg

Every so often, I get a request for ‘derivative works’ permission — usually from a wildlife artist who wants to use a photo as the foundation for a painting or print. I particularly love it when the work is used to benefit an animal cause … like this painting of a Brown Pelican I photographed in San Francisco. Artist Dan Kent created an ink and watercolor version as part of a wildlife benefit during the Deep Water Horizon spill.

Today, I got an inquiry about a Marbled Godwit. It was from a period of time I’d tucked into a distant memory compartment but which is, oddly, connected to another spill event.

I shot a flock of godwits on San Francisco Bay, just after the Cosco Busan oil spill in 2007. I was working with a team, locating, photographing and reporting oiled wildlife in need of rescue. I was beyond despondent, encountering oiled bird after oiled bird, some stranded and probably hypothermic, others out of reach, dipping and bobbing in the surf, in the characteristic frenzy that signifies a bird trying to shake oil off her feathers.

After one particularly rough day, I took a last spin around a marina and peered over a breakwater to see if I’d missed anyone. Not one of the passersby saw what I saw because, first, it was a Gumby-style stretch to even peer over the rockery. And second, the birds, little baubles of plumage, were so numerous and mottled against the background, they blended into the rocky terrain.

Spanning this stretch of bay’s edge, east to west, were hundreds of mixed shorebirds: Marbled Godwits, Willets, Long-billed Curlews, and Whimbrels. Most were sleeping, their feathers blown into tufts from the onshore gusts. The silent power of shorebirds is so captivating to me and Hugh that we call them The Quiet Nation. There they were, a nation in mass, rocking voiceless on the breakwater, napping and stretching.

And, most importantly — they were totally free of oil, robust, healthy.

I admit, I cried — until I realized I couldn’t see them anymore through my gritty and grubby contact lenses. If this was a cosmic gift, it couldn’t have been greater than this avian tableau before me … a Quiet Nation sleeping off the storm of sea and bunker fuel, safe and coddled against a backdrop of Cosco Busan chaos.

It was a moment of relief and release — and this image will always evoke for me, the profound gratitude I had for this welcome vision of normalcy and continuity: the shorebirds huddled as they always were, in peace and symbiosis, barely murmuring their tall tales over the voice of the Pacific.

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