“Well, this is a first,” I said to my wife, as we watched a cormorant and a blue heron dancing atop a rock at the edge of a tide pool.
The cormorant faced the larger bird, spread its jet-black wings like Batman, and shuffled its feet. The heron responded by beating its wings one time, then bobbing its long, gangly neck. It was a fascinating but uneasy tango, both birds clearly wishing the other would fly away.
“This is a first.” Every time we visit the coast, we find ourselves uttering these words. Nature never fails to surprise.
Seeing a blue heron at a tide pool would have been remarkable enough. I’m used to spotting Ardea herodias all around the Rogue Valley, in ponds and streams, but I don’t remember seeing one at the beach before this sighting.
For sure, I have never witnessed one trading moves with a cormorant.
Clinging to a rock in the same tide pool was a creature similar to a sea star, but with shorter arms. A bat star. The first we had ever seen.
Once, just up the beach from this spot in Crescent City, my wife and I were cussed out by a sea lion. We were walking along, minding our own business, when this nervy creature poked its head up from the surf and started ripping into us.
We knew it was a sea lion, not a harbor seal, because they are the marine mammals that “bark.” My wife and I continued on our way, trying to ignore its salty language, but the creature kept following us, paralleling our path for a good 50 yards.
It was scary having something that size stalk us. Females can get as big as 400 pounds, males 700. What if it came out of the water and rushed us?
Lucky for us, the animal decided to swim away before the situation became an emergency. This was a first I could’ve done without, thank you.
Some firsts are magical. Like, I once picked up dozens of a small, spirally type of shell from a beach, a beautiful purplish and pinkish variety that I had never seen before and have not seen since.
Another time, we saw several deer — grass grazers, I’m told — strolling nonchalantly along the beach, where no grass grows.
Other firsts are kind of creepy. On our most recent coast visit, for example, we saw turkey vultures — 17 of them, by my count — feasting on a seal carcass.
Actually, only three of these carrion eaters were doing the feasting. The other 14 were just loafing around, either waiting their turn or just enjoying the camaraderie. They dotted the beach like black pegs.
Some firsts are beyond my powers of explanation. Indeed, what did that sea lion have against us?
On the other hand, it was obvious what had caused the heron/cormorant to-do. My wife and I had startled the heron as we approached the tide pool, prompting it to take flight before we had even seen it.
It landed on the highest lookout perch available, which happened to be claimed already by the smaller bird. If we hadn’t shown up, there wouldn’t have been any trouble.
Though we blew it that time, we try to keep out of nature’s way whenever possible. Earlier this year, we crested a dune in Tolowa Dunes State Park, north of Crescent City, looked down at the beach, and beheld one of the most magnificent gatherings of wildlife I have ever seen.
Seabirds, easily 300 strong, were standing close together, gazing out at the ocean or at each other. Most were gulls, in various color stages of plumage, but pelicans were well represented, as were cormorants.
Cormorants? Yes, evidently they can get along with other birds, as their presence in this United Nations assembly proved.
My wife and I half-slid down to the beach, then started walking away from the birds, not wanting to disturb their peace. Whatever had brought them all together, whatever they were up to, it had nothing to do with us — and we wanted to keep it that way.
I don’t expect I’ll ever see such a large mix of marine birds again, and that’s fine with me. The best kind of first is the kind that never repeats itself. Its rarity makes it that much more precious.
— Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.