For decades now, it has been my custom to flee daughter loss by spending major Holidays in wildlife refuges, above all the Brigantine (Edwin B. Forsythe, near Smithville and Atlantic City). Here, my first golden eagle sailed above my head on Christmas Day, 'walking' me back down to my car after an invigorating hike up the wooded hill of Jenn's Trail. Here a friend and I found our first ibis - which I thought must be extinct - counting 48. Here I saw a peregrine fell a black duck and a great black backed gull finish the meal. At Brigantine, I watched the last sun of a century set on Absecon Bay, turning the backs of hundreds of thousands of murmuring snow geese the tenderest shade of peach.
This year, 2012, Storm King Sandy swirled in like a landing party from a horde of pirate ships. Birders have seen the images of cormorants swimming where we used to drive - the dike road severed. Friends, realizing this, began asking me to join in their Christmas celebrations. They assumed I would not make my Christmas pilgrimage.
One after another, I brought these dear and generous friends to understanding, "I must do the Brig." Finally I realized and could explain that this tragedy is comparable to "a dear friend's being seriously ill. I must go and be with her. I can't take her gifts, but the Brig will hold gifts that day."
Alan McIlroy and Tasha O'Neill (she fine art photographer and both consummate friends), however, had a unique response. "May we go with you?" And we did.
We knew that, once down there, our Brigantine experience would be on foot. We did not realize to what degree, --how impossible to reach usual trails. Signs blocked entry to the dike roads, with a finality that was more chilling than that northwest wind 'that bit the nose and stung the toes' as over the ground we walked.
We parked above the nature center (not open because Christmas), bundled up with every scarf and layer, set off where we usually drive, heading for Leeds Eco Trail. Soon our feet were echoing rather rapidly along that 'boardwalk' (it's not boards, rather impervious fake substance that evidently resists hurricanes and also accepts carved names of nature donors.)
Immediately, our Brig time became an exercise in memory - the birds we used to see. Here is where the peregrine perched on a stripped slant of a pole. There we watched the male osprey bring long green decorations for their refurbished nest. Here fiddler crabs swarmed, ate, defended, by the hundreds. That's the bayberry bush where I first heard and saw (at the same time) yellow-rumped warblers. That's the kingfisher's diving post. The only sign of life that day were welcome hand-like raccoon tracks in marsh mud at low tide.
We could not see to the sea breach, by the second climbing tower, about 1/3 of the way round on the severed dike road. Absecon Bay was empty of birds.
No winter ducks bobbed along in couples, merrily, generously feasting, to our right nor to our left.
Skies were empty. This time of year there could be 100s of 1000s of snow geese gathering, swimming, flying, feeding. They make the loveliest murmur as their famous 'waves' drift in. We saw not a wing, heard not a snowgoose sound.
Optics were of no use that day- unless you like to look at Atlantic City buildings. [My favorite time at the Brig is when casinos are hidden by fog. They weren't,]
Bitter winds buffeted us, turning us about in our tracks, as we tried to figure out what the incursion of bay water had done to all the carefully managed salinities of this refuge, and o, could this ever be fixed? Precise salinities encouraged precise stands of native plants, essential for food and shelter for waterbirds.
Hands stuffed in pockets, heads down into that wind, we trudged up to the car. We didn't have it in us to battle elements on foot down and back to the gull tower, where there might be tundra and mute swans, serene upon impounded waters.
Tasha, with her eye for color, saw a male cardinal in parkinglot underbrush. We all heard a chickadee. Other than that, there were no birds for lists, virtual or actual, that day at the Brig.
Being European in all the best senses, Tasha had brought a picnic lunch. We drove over to Scott's Landing, bumping down the sand road through battered but not slaughtered (like Princeton) forest, to a marshy clearing. Swales of grasses marked high tide and tidal surge, even into the woods.
As we arrived, the overcast lifted. To our right, a majestic great blue heron rose into sky he nearly matched. Settling onto marsh grasses to our left, he startled a great egret, --bird that poet John Ciardi likens to Archangels. This white-winged creature became a bookend with the heron for the duration of our meal.
Tasha had made exquisite tea sandwiches, vivid, artfully garnished, irresistible. Alan had a selection of beverages, and my gift was colorful Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas cookies. Chocolate truffles finished the meal. Throughout, intensifying sun warmed us through the car's wide windows.
Partway through our Christmas collation, a saucy female common merganser -- the one with spiky red feathers on her head that make her look like she stuck her webbed foot into a light socket--, sashayed up and down a tidal inlet. As much as heron and egret made the grasses their own, she claimed this watery passage. Two greater yellowlegs minced about on peat-sand, feasting also.
As Tasha replaced the china plates in the fitted wicker basket, we realized this had been our first Christmas picnic.
What we had undertaken that day is called 'Errantry' -- wandering about in search of adventure. Implied in the errant's quest is acceptance, as in Arthurian times, of whatever transpires.
We accepted with a deep sense of gratitude and privilege, time in such beauty, despite storms past, present and to come.
We tried to hold the declaration, in The Beaches Are Moving -- the Drowning of America's Shoreline, by Wallace Kaufman and Orrin H. Pilkey, Jr., --"There are no disasters or catastrophes in nature." Published in 1979, reissued in 1983 and 1998, why isn't this book mandated reading for President and Congress? Further quotable quotes, inescapable realities include: "It is the nature of sand to move." "Any homeowner on the beach is gambling against overwhelming odds."
I have read that storms even of this magnitude are blessings for birds, especially in terms of pouring new sand all along overdeveloped coasts, --sand for new nests.
This feels too Pollyanna for me. I think of birds blown out to sea; of nests and nest trees down, as is that of 'our' eagles of Princeton; of food supplies drowned, salted, oiled and worse.
But Brigantine and its preserved mostly empty environs hold beauty, --storm or no storm--, and that may be all the lesson I need.
In two hours, I'm setting out on those gorgeous empty Pinelands roads with yet another friend, to see what we can see. To visit the patient anew, this battered Brigantine, and let her know we care. To thank her for a lifetime of stellar birding until now.