Royal terns

IMG_3046We 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,

Photo: Nicholas Atamas

Photo: Nicholas Atamas

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.

 Gracious Goodness

Marge Piercy

On the beach where we had been idly

telling the shell coins

cat’s paw, cross-barred Venus, china cockle,

we both saw at once

the sea bird fall to the sand

and flap grotesquely.

He had taken a great barbed hook

out through the cheek and fixed

in the big wing.

He was pinned to himself to die,

a royal tern with a black crest blown back

as if he flew in his own private wind.

He felt good in my hands, not fragile

but muscular and glossy and strong,

the beak that could have split my hand

opening only to cry as we yanked on the barbs.

We borrowed a clippers, cut and drew out the hook.

Then the royal tern took off, wavering,

lurched twice,

then acrobat returned to his element, dipped,

zoomed, and sailed out to dive for a fish.

Virtue: what a sunrise in the belly.

Why is there nothing I have ever done with anybody

that seems to me so obviously right?

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9 Responses to Royal terns

  1. Cheryl Sullivan says:

    I love this poem! I have never been to the part of the world you are visiting but I see certain terns here in Maine. And the puffins and other sea birds!

  2. Roger Rosenthal says:

    I love your description of the Royal terns. They are odd looking birds. Hope someday to head down to Captiva and see them!

    • Liza says:

      Have you been there, Roger? We saw a young boy catch a big fish right off the dock in the marina. And there are dolphins everywhere you turn.

      • Roger Rosenthal says:

        I haven’t but I hope to. I have read about kayak fishing at Captiva and it sounds great. And if the fishing is poor there are the beaches and warm weather.

  3. Judy Buck says:

    Beautiful, beautiful; your words and Piercy’s. Will show to my friend who rescues animals here on Roosevelt Island.

  4. Patricia Markert says:

    Richard and I love your writing in this post. Will look for the terns while we are down in captiva. Would love to know why they molt? Just their top feathers, so strange.

  5. What cool looking birds and lovely poem. Thanks, Liza!

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