We watched the royal terns on Captiva Island last week gather in a group on the beach, facing the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. They clustered together in a loose V-shaped formation, alert and somewhat pensive. It was as if they were waiting for someone or something that was long past due. The thick black caps of royal terns grow patchy in the winter months,
making them look a little like grumpy old men with comb-overs that lift in the breeze. They eyed us suspiciously as we walked past, shifting from foot to foot, muttering amongst themselves. We’d seen them in groups like this before and remain puzzled by what they were up to — neither feeding nor breeding — but forced together like strangers on a train platform.
They were gone by the time we walked back. Had what they were looking for arrived? Or had they given up? They left only the hieroglyphics of their webbed foot prints in the sand.
Here’s a poem by the American poet and novelist Marge Piercy that includes a royal tern.