It was still light out when Darcy, Kerry, and I left Kerry’s mother’s house: a one level, newly built house in a neighborhood filled with one level newly built homes, designed mostly for retirees moving to the Delaware Shore. It was the kind of neighborhood my parents had taught me to loathe, where a piece of land was clear-cut to make it easier for a builder to put up a series of identical homes connected to one another by thick black asphalt. Gone were the knotty loblolly pines and twisty weathered eastern red cedars that cast shade over the tract of land, muggy and windless as it was several miles from the places the sea breeze caressed. Gone too were the inkberry, arrowwood, and spicebush, the scent of their flowers, the site of their berries, the sound of birds scurrying through their bushes, collecting food or twigs or Spanish moss with which to line their nests. Ironic, I had thought as I first drove through the neighborhood, ironic that my new grad school friends and I would meet here to see a bird migration—it was a place that seemed somewhat sterile, somewhat artificial.
The house was merely a place that we slept and ate. To see the birds, we would have to travel somewhere more undisturbed, more natural, a drive further north, further from interstates that gave people from big cities, like us, access to salt and waves. We left an hour or so before sunset, to get to Slaughter Beach right at dusk when it would still be light enough to see, but dark enough for horseshoe crabs to begin to emerge from the ocean in hordes, their hard, glossy bodies rising from the Delaware Bay’s salty and almost waveless water. Amongst the graying twilight sky, the crabs themselves would be dark blotches in undulating indigo water, the water reflecting the light of the moon, the crabs seemingly absorbing it. Yet, as the sky darkens, the tide rises, and the crabs are pushed towards the beach, pushed towards one another, each clambering for dry ground to set their claws upon, and once they find it, clambering towards one another again—the males searching for females to latch onto, elevating themselves slightly off the sand. Once a male latches, he waits, waits for his larger mate to drag him across the beach, their conjoined bodies etching elaborate patterns in the sand as the female produces eggs, as the male fertilizes the eggs before they land in the sand.
As the crabs dance, shorebirds swarm the beach. Amongst the sandpipers and killdeer and terns, we would be searching for Red Knots, pressing binoculars against our faces to find a bird whose migration from one hemisphere to the next serendipitously times up with the burial of millions of horseshoe crab eggs. I wanted to see the birds feasting on the clumps of pea-green eggs, sucking them up in their thin black beaks, wading through seaweed with their little black legs, the course, speckled sand blending in with their dappled grey feathered backs, their burnt orange chests swelling as they feed. For weeks I had been searching online, monitoring the Red Knot’s migration, trying to time the exact week they would swarm the Delaware shore, a place they would stop for only ten to fourteen days, one of their only stops on their nearly ten-thousand-mile journey as they made their way from their wintering grounds in Tierra del Fuego to their nesting grounds in the Canadian artic. On Delaware’s shores, they would double their weight, slurping clams and snails and worms, but mostly, freshly laid horseshoe crab eggs.
* * *
The Red Knot migration was one of the first birding events I was truly interested in seeing. Growing up, my siblings and I would roll our eyes and mock my mom and dad as they sat on our deck in the suburbs of South Carolina, sipping their weekend coffees, binoculars resting on our teak table, a birding scope near the railing, a bird app open on my mother’s phone, arguing about whether they were hearing a red-breasted nuthatch or a Carolina chickadee. On her phone, my mom would play the bird call, and they would hand the binoculars back and forth, arguing as only a couple who has been married thirty years would.
“Do you want to see?” my mom would always ask, offering me the binoculars, but I would smirk and shake my head as I smeared cream cheese on a bagel and tilted my face upwards, not in search of birds, but to allow the morning sun to graze my face, the hot rays warming my face, turning my skin the deep golden brown my friends and I were always seeking.
When the years passed, flinging me from high school, my metathesiophobia kept me at that same table with my mom, and while she still had a pair of binoculars nearby, I now had unwashed hair and an anxious twitch in my leg. Living at home and a college dropout, I was consumed with racing thoughts and psychosomatic symptoms that kept me from making it through a class, a shopping trip, a meal without feeling the need to run from the room, my heart thumping wildly, my mouth, open, gasping, gulping for air, my mind telling me that my arm was going numb, I was going into cardiac arrest, my ribcage was collapsing and air could no longer enter my lungs. When my mom handed me the binoculars, I no longer smirked and said no; I simply shook my head and stared down at my feet. My friends were nonexistent, my tan no longer mattered, the birds had never mattered, and now, nothing mattered.
“You just need to get over the hump,” my mom would say. “We’ll get past this.”
But I didn’t believe her. I didn’t believe the shortness of breath and the cataclysmic thoughts would ever stop. The therapy wasn’t helping, and I was too afraid of the drugs and their scary side effects, or worse even, that they wouldn’t change anything in my body at all, leaving me without any options and without the slightest bit of hope. My mom’s solution was the birds—or more broadly, the birds and the trees and the trails that snaked through our small inland city in South Carolina.
“The more you get out, the easier it will become, eventually,” she said, and so daily, we would walk, first in the neighborhood and then we stretched our perimeter, traveling ten minutes to parks with sandy trails and longleaf pines or gardens with rows of planted azaleas and agapanthus, then thirty minutes to lakes lined in limestone with giant bullfrog tadpoles and alligators that poked their eyes out of duckweed, then more than an hour to see the isoprene in the sky turn to a hazy sapphire above the Blue Ridge Mountains or fiddler crabs dart across the Lowcountry’s sulphuric pluff mud. My mom would walk with her binoculars and when a birdsong made her pause, I would pause a moment too, still uninterested in the birds, but maybe, for a minute or two, enjoying a moment of peace—something that months earlier would have seemed unfathomable. Occasionally, a spectacular bird—a flock of wood storks feeding in a coastal pond, their ugly molted heads bent over as they searched the mud for crustaceans, or a painted bunting, with its variegated, sherbet-hued plumage in vermillion, royal blue, and viridescent yellow, flitting around the ecotone of a forest and meadow—would catch my attention, but anything that I had to search hard for, I lost interest in.
The Red Knot migration, my mom said, would be the kind of spectacular event that would captivate me, an opportunity to see hundreds of coastal birds converge on the Carolina shore as they made their way from the tip of Chile up to the Arctic. Her birding friends invited her to watch the migration from their house on Harbor Island—a barrier island off South Carolina’s southern coast—and while the knots didn’t visit South Carolina in the numbers they did on the Eastern Shore, we were tantalized with seeing rare birds feasting in the hundreds. The knot’s nearly ten-thousand-mile journey impressed me, but the Red Knot itself looked no different than the shorebirds I was used to seeing run along the shore, pecking after coquina clams unearthed by water lapping the shore. Seeing my indifference in the knots, my mom enticed me with seeing thousands of horseshoe crabs swarm the beach and with counting loggerhead eggs and marking their nests, protecting them from raccoons and ghost crabs and people. I was sold, mostly on turtles and dancing horseshoe crabs, my mom on birds that took over the beach and the sky, as numerous as a constellation of common starlings gliding across an open field.
* * *
Ed and Sarah’s Harbor Island house was mostly clean lines and open spaces, the airiness complemented by a touch of whimsy. Beachy light wood floors met white walls and off-white sofas, playing off of white cabinets in the kitchen and backsplash patterned with red and blue and yellow hot air balloons. Everything in the house was pointed towards the back where huge windows overlooked a rookery along a small blackwater pond teeming with alligators, egrets, herons, and ibises—the pond sheltered from the elements, but only a few blocks from bigger fishing grounds in the form of both the bay and sea.
During the day, we sat beneath an umbrella on the back porch, my mom and her friends passing binoculars amongst themselves while I sat alone in a corner, reading a book. As dusk approached, we walked towards the beach, the sand gnats, mosquitos, and no-see-ums relentlessly biting as we traversed the boardwalks built atop the dunes.
We made our way to the end of the island, where the shore began to curve and we could see St. Helena Island across the bay. The beach was mostly empty, apart from the small group of local naturalists that had gathered to see the red knots—field guides in their hands, vented explorer hats on their heads. A local nature guide gathered everyone in a semi-circle and explained that we were more likely to see the red knots on the sides of the island, where the island’s already tame surf met the bay and became even glassier. Across the bay, we could even see, with binoculars, a sandbar that had been forming for years as the ocean naturally tugged the sand on Harbor Island—this sand bar was completely protected from predators and was a place the red knots were more likely to gather.
Birding is a slow process—a hobby that requires a great deal of patience, of standing still as the slightest movement can startle the very creature you are trying to observe. The group mostly hung around the spot we gathered, some moved a dozen or so feet in any one direction. Many gave up on seeing the red knots entirely and meandered towards the dunes where they might spot nesting oystercatchers or plovers. A few stood in a line facing the sandbar, their backs hunched forward, their faces glued to eyepieces on their binoculars, speculating about the birds in the distance.
It could be red knot, they said over and over again. From a distance, a red knot could easily be confused with a willet or a godwit or a dowitcher. Long-billed dowitchers can have the same bright red underbellies as red knots, the same dappled grey and brown plumage on top. I shook my head—this was precisely why I could never get into birding. There was too much speculation, too much waiting around, hoping to see something small and evasive that didn’t want to be seen. Often, birders consider “seeing” a bird as hearing its song, knowing that it was in the forest or meadow that they were in, even if it concealed itself amongst the branches or shrubbery. I had long been fascinated with nature—with seeing the delicate white petals of an Oconee Bell on a March day or an alligator poking his eyes through a swath of duckweed—but birding required a patience, an acceptance of dealing with the incompleteness of only hearing the animal or seeing it as a blur of color as it darted from one branch to another in a dense canopy, rather than the unexpected joy of spotting something concrete and allowing yourself a few moments to spend with it. I wanted to see the Red Knots, not to maybe spot a small shorebird, but to see hundreds of birds converging on one beach, a grand magnificent event, impossible to confuse or ignore. I wanted to see something that felt monumental, that felt worth seeing.
The Red Knots, however, were evasive on that May South Carolina day. Perhaps they weren’t on the beach in part because of their dwindling numbers—a result of climate change, of which shorebirds are especially susceptible to. The knot’s tundra nesting grounds are shrinking and all over, all the places they stop are susceptible to flooding. The ever-acidifying ocean is producing less of the crabs and shellfish the knots feed on, more frequent storms are disrupting their flights and homes, and their beaches are disappearing to housing developments and treading feet. The bird that for one of South Carolina’s most prominent naturalists, Alexander Sprunt Jr., represented “an untrammeled wildness and freedom that is equaled by few and surpassed by none” shows how easily freedom can be stripped away. Almost three-fourths of Red Knots have been missing from their key stopover locations in recent years—perhaps we have simply lost track of them as they adapt to changing beaches and ecosystems, or perhaps they are disappearing altogether.
The naturalists I gathered with on the beach were visibly disappointed by how few birds we saw, not just Red Knots, but sandpipers and avocets and plovers as well. Immediately after we arrived, I realized we weren’t going to see the clouds of birds my mom had dreamed of seeing, nor the horseshoe crabs which brought them to the shore, and so I wandered up the where the island started to curve around on itself, to a tidal inlet where the cordgrass was transitioning from its dormant brown to a vibrant green, and sat, watching the sand and water glow a vibrant orange. It had been a few years since I had wound up back in my childhood home, in my childhood bedroom, and for a little while now, I had started to feel something had started to change inside me.
* * *
When I moved north to Washington DC to attend graduate school several years after my failed attempt to see the Red Knots, I waited anxiously for May to roll around. I had moved eight hours from home, close enough to take a weekend trip out to the Eastern Shore and see the migration that my mom had attempted to drag me to three years earlier. At that time, I wouldn’t have been able to fathom something as simple as moving several states from home, but that bubble that my mom had worked with me on extending had grown larger and larger, landing me in a big city four-hundred miles from home, with a few nerdy writer friends who I had convinced to come watch birds with me.
By the time my friends I arrived at the beach, twilight had descended. We drove towards the beach on a long, thin, elevated road that rose out of a marsh teeming with reeds. The road was mostly deserted, except for a few houses and buildings where it wasn’t uncommon to see roofs missing large patches of shingles and exterior siding stripped away, leaving fluffy pink insulation sticked out, or sometimes raw wooden beams.
The area never really recovered from Sandy, Kerry said, and I wondered if the devastation of that storm was responsible for the emptiness and desolation that we encountered the further away we got from the Rehoboth Beach house where we were staying. On the start of our journey, we had passed houses clad in cedar shingles or bright, freshly painted yellow, blue and pink siding, but out here, the houses, which sat on larger patches of land, were more rustic, becoming shabbier the further we drove down. On Deleware-36, stretching toward the nature center, the houses not on stilts, the houses without augmented drainage systems of pipe and granite, looked as if they had simply given into the rising waters—their porches drooping, their siding wavering in the wind, their driveways overrun by weeds.
We knew the nature center at the end of road would be closed, but we were more interested in the land than the building. The center was built on the edge of a peninsula with wrap around porches and metal tourist binoculars screwed into its beams, offering views of several different converging ecosystems—the marsh, the ocean, the beach, and offshore sandbars. From the porch, we would be able to see the Red Knots converge.
The further we drove, however, the clearer it became why the houses around us had been abandoned. As we neared the end of the road, the asphalt began to disappear beneath a stream of brackish water. Around us, the tide swelled, drenching the road in salt and seaweed, and as we would soon discover, the horseshoe crabs we were promised would come with the tide.
I had hoped to be able to pass through the water, to get to the dry asphalt on the other side, and so, I began inching my Civic closer to the stream of water, but after only a couple of inches, I reversed. The water was too deep and rising every second. Instead, I backed up several feet and parked my car in the middle of the road on high ground far enough away from the rising tide that we assumed it would be safe.
May in Delaware, especially in the evening, is chilly, and so as Darcy, Kerry, and I prepared to cross the stream and make it the rest of the way to the nature center, we shed our socks and shoes and rolled up our pants to wade through the water. The chilly water stung the mosquito bites on my calves and the current tugged my ankles, attempting to drag me sideways into the marsh.
As the water rose, the tide pulled the horseshoe crabs in by the hundreds, the water filling with prehistoric creatures attempting to use their tails and hairy arachnid feet to propel themselves through the water, appendages seemingly useless against the swelling tide. Two of their eyes, hidden behind larger eyes perched atop the crab’s shell, let the crabs know when the moon is full, when it is new, when to allow the tide to push it to shore, when to use its largest eyes, chemically stimulated to be more sensitive in the darkness, to search for mates. We watched the crabs search beneath the full moon, the smaller males latched their claws onto the back of females. Once latched, females began searching for a beach on which to come ashore, searching for a perfect patch of sand—not too dry, not too wet—on which to lay four to five thousand eggs, the male fertilizing the eggs as they leave her body. In searching for the perfect spot, she will drag herself and her mate across the sand, covering the sand with her tracks as she moves. When she finds her spot and lays her eggs, she’ll move forward and do it again, and again, and again—laying twenty-thousand eggs in one night.
In early summer on the Delaware Shore, horseshoe crabs number in the millions—the largest clustering in our country. It seems unbelievable that the clusters used to be even bigger, before fisherman dragged them out of the sea by the millions to grind them up for fertilizer. When white settlers landed in the New World, Native Americans taught them to throw dead horseshoe crabs in their fields to enrich the soil—an idea that white Americans ended up exploiting in the 19th century, documenting their massacres in black and white photos showing mountains of crabs, tens of thousands of them, stacked atop of one another, the mounds trailing away from what a single lens can capture, the mounds rotting in the sun, waiting to be ground into a powdery fertilizer. With this fertilizer, white people nearly decimated a “living fossil” that had managed to survive more than 450 million years, managed to survive whatever killed the dinosaurs.
A slice of the magnitude of the horseshoe crabs floated around me, repaving the road with their shells, their tales and claws tickling my feet as they swam and crawled. Nearby, Kerry waded slowly through the water and Darcy hopped around anxiously, yelping as he tried to avoid the crabs.
I picked up a large female and held it towards him, my hands grasping the outside of its hard shell, just above its tail appendage. As I held the crab, it flicked its tail aggressively, trying to free itself and reenter the water.
“They can’t actually pinch you,” I said, rubbing the backside of my left hand against the crabs exposed underside, where its twelve fleshy legs anxiously pawing at the air. It was similar to something I had seen the naturalist do on the shores of Harbor Island. Attempting to dispel the fear that people feel around these creatures, afraid of their arachnid underbellies, their crab misnomer that insinuates painful pinchers, he held the crab against his face, allowing its salty legs to feel their way across his nose, his lips.
“Don’t do that!” Darcy screamed.
I laughed. Despite growing up on the Maryland shore, Darcy shuddered at the crabs, coming out with me only to see the knots—a bird that he could add to his life list. Darcy knew many more birds than me as he frequently watched them from his kitchen window, outside of which he hung a feeder full of suet. Our trip to the Delaware shore was born when I saw him wearing a powder blue T-shirt featuring a giant cartoon Red Knot—a Christmas gift from his mom.
I extended my arms toward Darcy, mocking him with the crab as if I were a child again, and in turn, he squealed like a child himself and splashed through the water, desperate for the dry asphalt on the other side.
* * *
Barefoot, we followed the asphalt until the road ended, depositing us at the Nature Center, which overlooked a marshy peninsula, but no beach. The sand had been moved, perhaps by Sandy, perhaps by the natural eb and flow of the tides and the wind.
“Is that your bird?” Kerry asked.
It was. In front of the nature center, a large red metal sculpture, about a foot taller than any of us, stood guard. It had a long black beak and tawny feathers and a bright, auburn chest. Clearly, despite lacking a beach, we were at the right place—we had seen the horseshoe crabs and we had seen an emblem of the Knot. Yet, the more we looked around, the more we began to realize that maybe we were at the right place for several years ago. With no beach, there were no crab eggs, with no crab eggs, there were no feasting shorebirds.
The wind whipped at us as we stared out into the sea. In front of us, just visible to the naked eye, but more visible through our binoculars, stood a narrow sandbar on which hundreds of birds stood. It seemed that there weren’t any eggs buried below their feet as the birds weren’t rushing about, sucking up calories. They, like us, appeared to be waiting—but neither us nor the birds ever got what we were waiting for.
As darkness descended and our ability to see Red Knots disappeared, the three of us meandered back towards the car. The puddle in the road had grown. It was now several feet across. Had we managed to drive across, we would’ve now been stranded. I wondered how the employees or volunteers at the Dupont Nature Center dealt with the tide. Did they know they couldn’t leave between certain hours and did they have to prepare for that inevitability? Did they park where we had parked, and also walk the rest of the way? And did visitors like us ever visit the Nature Center at low tide, only to find themselves trapped later in the day? Perhaps that was why the houses nearby were empty. Perhaps they couldn’t deal with the isolation incoming water can bring, consuming, drowning, suffocating, eating away. If the nature center wanted to survive, it seemed, something would need a change, a bridge, perhaps, connecting what was becoming an island, back to the main shore.
My jeans were still rolled below my knees, but the water now came up higher, licking at my thighs. Crossing the stream back to my car, horseshoe crabs swam around me, whipping their tails, their bodies covered in barnacles, illuminated by foggy yellow streetlights. The water felt as if it was rising even as we crossed, more road disappearing beneath dark water by the minute.
Darcy and Kerry crossed the stream more quickly than me; I was accustomed to the feeling of isolation, of fighting an invisible current. I took my time, admiring the dozens of horseshoe crabs that swam around me. Later, Kerry and Darcy would tell me they were sorry that we never saw the birds—perhaps we could try again, another year—but I had already realized that I didn’t mind. It was never really about the birds, it was never even really about the crabs, and as it had been years earlier, it wasn’t because of a lack of interest.
It seemed that with each passing birthday, birds were becoming more and more appealing to me. Recently, when I crossed state borders again and moved into a sky-blue cottage on a corner lot in north Florida, one of the first things I noticed about my neighborhood was the three Red-Tailed Hawks that flew above my house, hoarsely screaming as they hunted squirrels and rabbits, perching on the branches of the sweetgums that shaded my home and littered my lawn with spiky seed pods. Walking my dog around a nearby pond, I was excited to spot a kingfisher, a bird my mom was in awe of at every sighting, its trademark tuft sticking up above its oversized bill as it scanned the water for fish and frogs. In those moments, when I saw the hawk, when I saw the kingfisher, I would make a mental note to tell my mom about the birds, to tease her that my yard, my neighborhood, has more birds than hers, to remind her that when she visits, she needs to be sure to bring her binoculars. I have an image in my head, an image of the two of us sipping coffee on the deck that snakes around my house, both of us holding a pair of binoculars in our hands, together, searching for birds, together, looking up towards the sky.
Liesel Hamilton is pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Florida State University. She is the author of Wild South Carolina (Hub City Press) and has been published in Catapult, The Normal School, and Audubon, among other publications. She has received fellowships from George Mason University and the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center.
featured photo by Richard Crossley, (cropped from original) CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons