One of the joys of living where I do is being so close to the water. After a long day at work or on the weekend I can paddle in my kayak and escape the distractions of cell phones, computers, televisions, radios and anything else that competes for my attention on shore. It restores me–if the water’s not too rough–and I emerge ready to take on the world again. Sitting on top of the water puts me at eye-level with the nature that surrounds me. Often, those surroundings bring pleasant surprises too.
A month ago, for instance, I took an evening paddle with my sister-in-law, who was visiting, to a favorite place where I take visitors who aren’t experienced kayakers. It’s a sheltered bay where the water tends to be warmer and shallower, especially at low tide and it’s just a short paddle out to an island designated as a wildlife and bird preserve.
We had just reached the rock separated from the island at high tide but adjoined by a sandbar during low tide, when I spotted them. Actually, I didn’t see them at first. First I saw two sea gulls perched on the rock’s highest point, proudly sitting on a nest. Then, coming round to the rock’s southern face, I came upon the other birds. “You’re in for a treat,” I told my sister-in-law coming up behind me. “There are a couple of oystercatchers here.”
Indeed, sitting on a scraggly rocky shelf above the water’s edge, were a pair of the jet black and long, narrow orange-billed birds known commonly as oystercatchers. They are almost comical in appearance with that orange ring around their eyes. These shorebirds, about the size of a crow, are exciting because only an estimated 400 of them exist in Washington state. In fact, the Northern Pacific Coast Regional Shorebird Management Plan has identified the Black Oystercatcher as a regional species “of high concern.” This pair, I suspected, were probably the same couple I have seen in recent summers when paddling that bay because not only do these birds tend to mate for the long-term but they also return to the same territory year after year.
Then I discovered the surprise, three surprises to be exact. Huddled up against the rock wall were three small fluffy grayish offspring. They barely resembled their parents except for their spindly legs and long beak . In the many years that I had been paddling around this island, I never had seen oystercatcher chicks and here, now, was a complete family!
My boat drifted quietly towards the rock but floated at a respectable distance so as not to frighten the birds or intrude on their nesting territory. The parents eyed me suspiciously. Satisfied that I had no aggressive intentions, they relaxed a bit. The chicks darted in and out between them, undaunted by my presence. Their beaks were not yet as brightly colored as their parents, nor were their legs. I bobbed up and down in the water watching quietly. After a long while, I backed off slipping my paddle into the water as silently as I could so as not to alarm them with my departure. The family seemed to content to let me leave.
Two weeks later, I paddled back out to the same spot to check on the young birds. They had relocated from their home on the rock over to the main island. I guessed that they had walked across at low tide as the chicks couldn’t yet fly. The family found a comfy new spot on the south side, where there was plenty of space for the five of them to move freely about. The chicks were now quite a bit larger from when I first met them.
Two were scrambling and playing down towards the water while mother keep a watchful eye on them (and me) from her place on the shelf above. A third chick was clinging precariously to the side of the rock, scaling it as if rock climbing. But unlike rock climbers, the young bird had no belay and when suddenly lost its footing, tumbled down several feet to the hard ground below. “Ouch!” I thought seeing it hit with a thud. Was it hurt? The concerned mother bird got up to check on her youngster, ‘tsk-tsking’ her baby as she moved in. But in typical youngster fashion, the bird bounced back on its feet after being momentarily stunned.
The antics of these young chicks entertained me as I attempted to capture a few images of the chicks with my telephoto lens. Finally, as the sun started to set, I reluctantly turned my kayak around and started towards shore.
Whether the chicks will still be there the next time I paddle out I don’t know. But it’s precisely these kinds of little surprises that turn an ordinary end of the day into an extraordinary adventure.