The Tern

By

The Tern
The Tern

The storm never materialized into the ferocious rain that was predicted, and all we heard through the evening was the buzzing of insects and the soft taps of an occasional rain shower on the fly of the tent. The sweltering heat of the day before had broken as the front pushed its way out to sea. We opened the tent door to be greeted by first light obliterated by thick, billowing black and gray clouds. Randy ascended the dune behind the tent to check the surf. No good. Maybe better later as the tide shifts. I watched him as he descended the dune like a skier, in long, sliding strides.

“Waves are pretty small,” Randy reported, “let’s go for a walk.” We secured camp, and I thought about bringing my camera. I knew I could get some moody shots with the dramatic sky, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’d been having a love-hate relationship with my camera lately. I just wanted to enjoy the peace and serenity of the beach, not worry about f-stops, shutter speeds and sand in my equipment.

We scrambled over the dunes and made our way south towards the Inlet. I noticed a Royal Tern splashing in the surf, head down and wings spread. Small wavelets were washing over him as he struggled with something. We approached him; he didn’t take flight. We both assumed it was quite a catch that made him so bold. Another wavelet came rushing up, pushing and turning him. Now we could see what he was struggling with: a fishhook caught in his beak. The hook was connected to a large weight that was buried in the sand, too heavy for him to move.

“Oh my God, Randy, we’ve got to help it,” I gasped, my anguish for the bird obvious in my shaking voice. “I know,” he said, “It’s really trapped, we have to catch it. Can you hold it?” The tern flapped his wings hard, pulling against the weight and splashing seawater and sand in our faces. I spoke softly to the bird as I approached him. “Hey baby, it’s okay, we’re going to help you.” I gently maneuvered my hands along the fore edge of his outstretched wings and tenderly folded them against his body. “It’s okay, sweet bird.” I wrapped my fingers across his breast and circled over his back with my thumbs. Randy pulled the weight out of the sand.

Crouched down, holding him close the ground, we examined his condition and tried to figure out the best way to remove the hook. It had gone completely through his nostrils at the top edge of his strong orange beak. He had been struggling ferociously against the snare, and it was lodged in tightly. Barbs along the shaft of the hook prevented it from releasing. There was a small bit of blood on his bill, but otherwise he seemed in good shape. He kicked his black webbed feet against the sand, and I whispered to him again, “We’re going to help you, beautiful bird.” It was as if he understood and grew calmer. Mosquitoes and flies were biting my legs, but I dared not move. “I don’t know how to get this out without hurting him,” Randy said. We decided the hook had to be cut or the largest of the barbs snipped off. Darn! I should have brought that camera bag! I had various tools in there. Randy stood to flag down some fishermen lumbering down the beach in a pick-up truck. They were sure to have something we could use.

I looked more closely at the bird. It suddenly dawned on me that I was holding this beautiful, ethereal creature in my hands. His black head looked like velvet and contrasted sharply with the bright orange of his thick bill. His body was white and sleek. The curve of his wings made a heart shape – the arch of his soft gray shoulders tapered down to a point where his wingtips met his tail feathers With my thumbs, I could feel the vertebrae in his back. My fingertips rested along the keel bone in his breast. His body was warm and soft and smooth. I could feel his heart beating quickly in his chest. He turned his head from side to side, his black eyes surveying the situation. My own heart was beating quickly too, partly out of anguish for him, but mostly out of the sheer thrill of holding this beautiful thing in my hands. It was surreal, this experience of making contact with a wild creature. “Oh God,” I prayed silently, “please let us free this bird.” I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to help him.

Randy returned with a pair of cutters the fisherman pulled from his tool box. “It’s not ideal,” he said, holding them up for me to see, “but we’ll make it work somehow.” He held a pair of pliers with a small wire cutting edge at the base. It looked like it might be an awkward procedure. He took the hook in his free hand and began to maneuver the cutters. Suddenly, the hook, which had been lodged in so tightly, slipped out freely. Randy held the liberated hook and the unused pliers in his hands and we stared at each other in disbelief. “Oh my God,” I said, “you didn’t even cut it!” “No,” he said, stunned, “…it just slipped right out.” “Maybe the bird relaxed and it was able to come free,” I offered, embarrassed to say what I really thought, that it was the quick and miraculous answer to my silent prayer.

“Will that work for ya’?” the fisherman asked as he approached us. “Uh, yeah. Thanks. Worked great,” Randy said, handing him the pliers, still puzzled over what had just happened. We admired the tern, glad we were able to release him unharmed. I held him a moment longer, thankful for this experience, then I opened my hands. The tern stretched out his wings and lifted upwards on the breeze. He moved toward the water, flapped his long wings and gained altitude. We stood watching him from the shore, his light colors luminous against the still stormy sky. He seemed to glow against the darkness. We watched him until we could no longer see him, far over the Inlet.

I lamented my decision not to bring my camera. Yet, perhaps being without my camera brought me more into the moment, freeing me to concentrate on the bird rather than worrying about metering the light or changing shutter speeds. I would have to burn the memory of this encounter in my brain…the flapping wings spraying water and sand, the blood on his beak, the heart-shaped wings and drumming of his heartbeat, the feeling of him leaving my hands and taking to the air, the glowing image of him against the dark clouds. The moment of connection…the feeling of freedom.

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  • The Tern

    The storm never materialized into the ferocious rain that was predicted, and all we heard through the evening was the buzzing of insects and the soft taps of an occasional rain shower on the fly of the tent. The sweltering heat of the day before had broken as the front pushed its way out to sea. We opened the tent door to be greeted by first light obliterated by thick, billowing black and gray clouds. Randy ascended the dune behind the tent to check the surf. No good. Maybe better later as the tide shifts. I watched him as he descended the dune like a skier, in long, sliding strides.

    “Waves are pretty small,” Randy reported, “let’s go for a walk.” We secured camp, and I thought about bringing my camera. I knew I could get some moody shots with the dramatic sky, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’d been having a love-hate relationship with my camera lately. I just wanted to enjoy the peace and serenity of the beach, not worry about f-stops, shutter speeds and sand in my equipment.

    We scrambled over the dunes and made our way south towards the Inlet. I noticed a Royal Tern splashing in the surf, head down and wings spread. Small wavelets were washing over him as he struggled with something. We approached him; he didn’t take flight. We both assumed it was quite a catch that made him so bold. Another wavelet came rushing up, pushing and turning him. Now we could see what he was struggling with: a fishhook caught in his beak. The hook was connected to a large weight that was buried in the sand, too heavy for him to move.

    “Oh my God, Randy, we’ve got to help it,” I gasped, my anguish for the bird obvious in my shaking voice. “I know,” he said, “It’s really trapped, we have to catch it. Can you hold it?” The tern flapped his wings hard, pulling against the weight and splashing seawater and sand in our faces. I spoke softly to the bird as I approached him. “Hey baby, it’s okay, we’re going to help you.” I gently maneuvered my hands along the fore edge of his outstretched wings and tenderly folded them against his body. “It’s okay, sweet bird.” I wrapped my fingers across his breast and circled over his back with my thumbs. Randy pulled the weight out of the sand.

    Crouched down, holding him close the ground, we examined his condition and tried to figure out the best way to remove the hook. It had gone completely through his nostrils at the top edge of his strong orange beak. He had been struggling ferociously against the snare, and it was lodged in tightly. Barbs along the shaft of the hook prevented it from releasing. There was a small bit of blood on his bill, but otherwise he seemed in good shape. He kicked his black webbed feet against the sand, and I whispered to him again, “We’re going to help you, beautiful bird.” It was as if he understood and grew calmer. Mosquitoes and flies were biting my legs, but I dared not move. “I don’t know how to get this out without hurting him,” Randy said. We decided the hook had to be cut or the largest of the barbs snipped off. Darn! I should have brought that camera bag! I had various tools in there. Randy stood to flag down some fishermen lumbering down the beach in a pick-up truck. They were sure to have something we could use.

    I looked more closely at the bird. It suddenly dawned on me that I was holding this beautiful, ethereal creature in my hands. His black head looked like velvet and contrasted sharply with the bright orange of his thick bill. His body was white and sleek. The curve of his wings made a heart shape – the arch of his soft gray shoulders tapered down to a point where his wingtips met his tail feathers With my thumbs, I could feel the vertebrae in his back. My fingertips rested along the keel bone in his breast. His body was warm and soft and smooth. I could feel his heart beating quickly in his chest. He turned his head from side to side, his black eyes surveying the situation. My own heart was beating quickly too, partly out of anguish for him, but mostly out of the sheer thrill of holding this beautiful thing in my hands. It was surreal, this experience of making contact with a wild creature. “Oh God,” I prayed silently, “please let us free this bird.” I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to help him.

    Randy returned with a pair of cutters the fisherman pulled from his tool box. “It’s not ideal,” he said, holding them up for me to see, “but we’ll make it work somehow.” He held a pair of pliers with a small wire cutting edge at the base. It looked like it might be an awkward procedure. He took the hook in his free hand and began to maneuver the cutters. Suddenly, the hook, which had been lodged in so tightly, slipped out freely. Randy held the liberated hook and the unused pliers in his hands and we stared at each other in disbelief. “Oh my God,” I said, “you didn’t even cut it!” “No,” he said, stunned, “…it just slipped right out.” “Maybe the bird relaxed and it was able to come free,” I offered, embarrassed to say what I really thought, that it was the quick and miraculous answer to my silent prayer.

    “Will that work for ya’?” the fisherman asked as he approached us. “Uh, yeah. Thanks. Worked great,” Randy said, handing him the pliers, still puzzled over what had just happened. We admired the tern, glad we were able to release him unharmed. I held him a moment longer, thankful for this experience, then I opened my hands. The tern stretched out his wings and lifted upwards on the breeze. He moved toward the water, flapped his long wings and gained altitude. We stood watching him from the shore, his light colors luminous against the still stormy sky. He seemed to glow against the darkness. We watched him until we could no longer see him, far over the Inlet.

    I lamented my decision not to bring my camera. Yet, perhaps being without my camera brought me more into the moment, freeing me to concentrate on the bird rather than worrying about metering the light or changing shutter speeds. I would have to burn the memory of this encounter in my brain…the flapping wings spraying water and sand, the blood on his beak, the heart-shaped wings and drumming of his heartbeat, the feeling of him leaving my hands and taking to the air, the glowing image of him against the dark clouds. The moment of connection…the feeling of freedom.

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