Thursday, November 29, 2012
The earth, tireless and now quite familiar after 4.5 billion years of rotation, continues its steady roll eastward, stars and planets disappearing under the sun's injection of light, driving the night sky to the west. Those still dreaming miss the sun's needle-tip peak pierce the horizon, sending cords of colour across the sky. Clouds, pink and purple, bleed out onto the plains, a new day's first breath heard on the winds blown off James Bay carrying the far-away howl of a loon.
The morning burgeons with activity until it reaches a plateau, early exhilaration waning as the day tips over into afternoon. The sun and moon, bored, begin to play gravitational tug-of-war, receding coastal waters helplessly grasp at loose sand, pulled by invisible tethers. A teaming tidal flat is revealed, a feeding factory of infinitesimal feasts: invertebrates facing their demise to shorebird bills knitting, probing, twisting and intruding their way into the moist terrain, tongues like conveyer belts leading to inner assembly lines. Tiny beings decimated by stomach acid, broken down and gizzard-ground into nutrients absorbed into the body, the mechanism for migrating machines to begin their long flight south.
A White-rumped Sandpiper leaves a line of imprints in the mud while she feeds. She is one of thousands, the coastal sand now a brocade of myriad criss-crosses. She is just about ready for her long flight, having eaten to excess. The winds are in her favour. This is not her first flight; she has made this trip six times before. There is urgency in her movements. She will fly out today.
A distant pair of eyes looks on. The flock is scanned from an elevated perch, a large piece of driftwood, a giant's bone wedged against the coastline. The watcher knows that patience will be rewarded. Many minutes pass. A suitable target is found. Talons dig into the wood in anticipation. The falcon, a shadow, hungry, lets go its perch and takes to the sky silently, cutting through the air toward the centre of the crowd.
A commotion. The White-rumped Sandpiper senses movement at the edge of the flock. Her mind switches instantly from food to fear. She joins the chaos of flapping wings in the air, her adaptations allowing her to mirror every movement of the group, as if all of these individual beings were a single surging organism. A blemish in the flock approaches, a larger presence at her rear. It causes her to err and lose sync from her surrounding kin. Her instincts bank her sharply to the left, but her pursuer stays mere inches behind her. She tries to fly back toward the flock but the rest of the birds have already flown too far down the coast.
Though her energy stores are high, the speed of her flight and the maneuvers she is forced to make begin to tire her. The falcon is relentless. She manipulates her wings and splashes into a pool of water below, her pursuer speeding over her. She takes flight immediately. She adds a few yards between herself and the falcon, which somersaults as it circles back in her direction. The distance between predator and prey lessens. She tries one more time to bank but this time the falcon has read her next move.
Talons tear through feathers and skin and the White-rumped Sandpiper is smashed against the ground. She twists a wing free and pushes it against the earth to throw off her attacker but her torn body is already too weak. She will not make the flight south. She feels another stab, a sharp beak puncturing her chest. She ceases to struggle. Her vision blurs. Her heart, racing just seconds before, stops.
The Peregrine Falcon wastes little time in its success. Grasping its meal in its talons, it flies back to its perch. No amount of meat can be squandered. This is survival. The falcon eats to its fill until little remains, and eventually flies back toward the forest.
The day wastes away. The first presence of the returning night is felt in the drop of degrees as grey and white feathers float away on the surface of the risen tide. The moon returns and new spirits rise to join the dance in the sky. Those still bound to Earth look upward and marvel at the wonder of the Northern Lights, their eyes reflecting the shifting sheets of radiant green.