New England Mermaid
Where does a mermaid go during a winter snowstorm? Come on fellow mer-people, it’s not a trick question! We go to the beach, of course!
In my more than half a century on this ocean planet, I have never had the experience of being on the beach while it snowed. That all changed this past week, and I can officially report that IT WAS AWESOME!
I’m not talking about dainty flurries here. I’m talking full out storm – 2” per hour snow fall, 50 mph wind gusts … so beautifully wild! Literally hundreds of seabirds gathered at the shore, maybe even thousands. They were on land, in the water, and floating on top of the waves. There were so many birds that it reminded me of a National Geographic special or an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Okay, the last reference is dating me, but I’m sure that some of you remember the classic version of that show. It was long before cable tv existed and made for great Sunday night family viewing. I have since learned that there has been a remake of this show during the early 21st century, but that is not the original one that made Jim Fowler famous, allowing for many classic late night Johnny Carson appearances. (Again, I’m dating myself … so let’s get back to the present time).
So I’m standing on the shore with wind and snow whipping at my face, frozen fingertips, and feeling completely exhilarated, as I crashed this bird party. What bird friends were engaged in this wild party? There were mostly seagulls, and also the adorable little sandpipers, some ducks, geese, and the occasional cormorant. I used to think that if you’ve seen one gull, you’ve seen them all. I could not have been more wrong. I watched a webinar this winter on gull identification, and I had not known that there was so much variation. The most common gulls that we see on Connecticut shores are the Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. I learned that the gulls look very, very different based on their ages and on the season, and that expert gull watchers can actually figure out the gull’s age based on their coloring. The brownish one on the left in the picture below appears to me to be a first winter ring-billed gull (meaning this is the first winter of its life) and the gray and white one on the right appears to be a non-breeding adult of the same species (about 3 or 4 years old). I cannot claim that my identification is 100% accurate, so if I am mistaken, we all at least get the point here. I suppose that this variation in outer-appearance is not limited to gulls. This mermaid will confess to having changed different hair colors over the years, and even sometimes during different seasons, and some experts might even be able to make age assumptions based on those changes.
Seabirds play a major role in the marine ecosystem, serving as major predators of various types of marine life including mollusks, fish, and other creatures. Gulls have also become integral parts of many human-made ecosystems. In addition to living at the shore, these gulls have taken up residence at clam shacks where they can enjoy the many mollusks that serve as part of their natural diet, but in deep-fried form. They have also taken up residence at hotdog stands, and they have become quite adept at stealing French fries. Many gulls have a red spot on their bills. Different species acquire that red spot at various stages of life. As I tried to learn about this, I discovered that there is a great deal of controversy in the bird research community about the purpose of the red spot. Discussions can get quite heated, so I have chosen not to take a stance on this specific issue! I used to have my own theory which has since been proven wrong. Given the fact that many of us have witnessed gulls close-up at clam shacks, didn’t at least some of you believe that the red spot was ketchup? Come on, please admit it! At least some of you, perhaps as a child, thought they were ketchup spots from the French fry diet? If you won’t admit it, I won’t either – let’s just pretend I never mentioned it.
If the gulls are the loud extroverts of the wild party, the sandpipers are the more quiet party guests. When wandering around on shore, they can blend in with the sand and shells so well as to go unnoticed, if it were not for their motion that catches the eye. I found them to be quite endearing. Their little, quick-moving legs are so cute! When large groups of sandpipers fly together, they move in sync in the sky in complete unison, so gracefully turning together, changing the shape of their flock. They reminded me of the large schools of silversides that are seen in the ocean, like silversides of the sky.
I visited this shoreline over a dozen times in 4 days, viewing it in so many different states. Large waves, calm seas, high tide, low tide, even lower tide, sunrise, sunset … While some things remained the same, so much was different that the site was at times hardly recognizable as being the same location. At high tide, many of the mysteries and surprises of the ocean remained hidden, revealing only a narrow stretch of shell-covered sand. At low tide, multiple sand flats appeared. One morning the low tide was more extreme, exposing long and wide swaths of mudflats.
Two things remained the same. Near the high tide mark, large mounds of shells stretch along the beach, parallel to shore. They were deposited there by the waves, giving the higher portion of the beach a charmingly pinkish hue from the slipper shells that made up a large majority of the piles. It was particularly beautiful with the pinkish skies around sunset time. Regardless of tide, I could always count on some wonderful beachcombing among those shells.
The second thing that remained the same came as a great surprise to me. Regardless of conditions, the birds behaved the same! The birds carried on their same flying, resting, and feeding behaviors, apparently in the same manner, during the peak of the storm as they did during the calm seas. These birds are pretty un-fazed!
One evening, I wandered to the shore to watch the sunset. As usual, hundreds of birds were hanging out. As the sun began to go down, little by little, groups would fly away. They all headed away from shore, but not exactly in the same direction. Finally, fewer than 10 remained, sitting on a log. One at a time, they each flew away. It reminded me of one of those children’s rhymes, or that old, never-ending song that my generation was encouraged to sing on long car rides, and would now be considered inappropriate – “100 bottles of a beer on a wall. 100 bottles of beer. If one of those bottles should happen to fall, there’s 99 bottles of beer on the wall.” My apologies if you now have that tune stuck in your head. With this inspriation, I wrote my own rhyme: “10 little gulls sitting on a post. One flew off and left the coast. Nine little gulls sitting on a post. One flew off … .” Well, you get the idea. I wish I knew where they went for the night – across the water to Long Island? To a sandbar somewhere? Curious if they would all return in the morning, I woke up early, an hour before sunrise, and headed back to the same spot. Not a single bird. As sunrise approached, the sandpipers came first, landed on a sandbar, and immediately started looking for breakfast. Then, small groups of gulls started coming from the sea, from different directions, until there were hundreds of them on the shores before sunrise. Had I not watched the sunset or sunrise, I would have thought they had stayed all night.
During my beach visits, I did search for life other than birds and other very cold people. Aside from some closed barnacles attached to boulders on shore, I only saw evidence on the beach and in the shell piles of the animals that had at some point lived there. Clams, whelks, mussels, oysters, the ubiquitous slipper snails and more have all called this area home. I also found dried up egg cases from nudibranchs and skates. We’ll talk more about all of these animals sometime in the future, so this is really just a teaser. I looked and looked – in tide pools, in mud flats, in between rocks, and I couldn’t find any active life forms, until … Until I met this guy! This one lone cutie pie! Cute is in the eyes of the beholder, and my eyes say he’s cute (or she, I honestly don’t know). This is a green crab that, despite its cuteness, is an invasive species and is not healthy for the local environment. Its ancestors traveled here on boats from Europe and northern Africa in the early 1800s and decided to stay, breed, and cause general havoc on native communities, leading to some organized attempts to annihilate them. This particular one almost met his demise when my husband missed accidentally stepping on him when his snow boot landed within ¼” of the little guy. The agile and observant crab quickly moved out of harm’s way, the movement allowing me to suddenly notice his existence and finally identify a sign of non-flying living marine life!
What a joy it is to be a mermaid in New England! This winter beach excursion turned out to be even more enchanting than I had ever expected or imagined. There is such beauty in the greys of the winter sea and sky, and the diverse experiences of nature that, in the exact same spot, is filled with such peaceful serenity and wild commotion. I would never give up the variety of weather conditions that we can enjoy here, though I certainly welcome visits to my tropical mermaid cousins.
You may recall that I mentioned that I have been on this planet more than half a century! For some, that may sound old … nope, not to mermaids. Think about it … have you ever seen a mermaid who looks old? No, I don’t believe you have. And it’s not because of some morbid idea like we all died off early or got eaten by sharks. We just know that, while our joints may creak a bit and our hair color may miraculously change on a regular basis, that age is but a number, youth is in the mind, and some of our best adventures are yet to come! And, if all else fails, remember that … salt is a great preservative, so spend as much time as possible swimming, diving, or simply wading in the salt water and breathing in that salt air. Cold temperatures also preserve, so this is an advantage that us New England mermaids have over our tropical relatives! We are the lucky ones!