Three days in a row, in late September, I went out to Race Point Beach in search of a couple of rare gulls. Three days in a row I failed to find those birds. But three days in a row I did see the same bird, a tern, an adult Common Tern.
How did I know it was the same bird? It was definitely in poor condition. Its appearance can only be described as disheveled: it had not yet molted its black cap (and I fear it never will); it was dingy, not crisp black, white, and gray. And most particularly, its left wing was slightly askew, not folded neatly against the body as it would be in a healthy bird. It takes a diminished bird like this to make us realize and appreciate the perfect aerodynamic design of a typical bird, a design shaped over eons for the demands of flight.
Small flocks of terns and gulls loafed collegially by the water’s edge or flew out over the water to fish in the offshore rip. This bird stood alone — not a good sign in such a social species. Its comrades, its mate and offspring, were all long gone to South America, and it remained, alone. (The other terns on the beach were all Forster’s Terns, a different species). This bird almost seemed to be muttering to itself. It walked and barely fluttered away when approached.
Watching it, I felt the same kind of compassion I would for a ragged homeless person sitting on the curb somewhere. What could I do? I thought of capturing it and saving it. But I had to stop and reflect. If, clutched in my hands, it survived the long walk back to my car; if it survived the car ride down to Wild Care; if it survived whatever treatment beyond euthanasia that they would offer — then what? It would be too late for it to migrate, and migrating on its own would be a deadly proposition. And what if they kept the bird in captivity until next spring? How would it understand its captivity? No.
This is a dead bird walking. There is nothing to be done about it.
Actually, there is something.
Two days in a row I saw a Peregrine Falcon soaring over the dunes and onto this same beach. Inevitably, it will spot this bird, will see its weakness, and will dispense a harsh but merciful end to its suffering. This is the way of nature, but it is difficult to witness. It is a phenomenon as old as life on Earth, one of the “grim arrangements” that Henry Beston refers to. The story here is me: where do I fit in this drama? The answer is that I do not. How do I witness and accept the beauty of the wild world that must also incorporate such harsh cruelty? The answer is that I must try. I remind myself that this beleaguered tern is also a predator.
What this tern would tell me, what the falcon would tell me, is that life and death are inextricably bound: the world depends upon it.