I sit in the red Adirondack chair, the only one with a cushion, albeit a thin cushion, and marvel at the well-practiced thievery of the frigate birds.
I used to think that they were like a natural GPS tracking system for schools of sardines. Where ever five or more were gathered, soaring so gracefully on the breeze, dipping, swooping, gliding sideways — surely there were fish below.
But while the frigates are doing their narcissistic act of effortlessly artful skywriting up above, it seems that kamikaze pelicans, low-cruising cormorants and the brisk business-like white terns are doing all the heavy lifting.
Time and again, I watch these birds dive into the warm Caribbean waters for food, only to have a couple of frigates swoop down from on high and attempt to snatch wriggling fish from their beaks. A cormorant sitting on the water to the south of our dock pulls up a spectacular breakfast and lifts its beak to the sky in order to open the throat in anticipation of a delicious glistening fish slider … only to have a frigate swoop in and literally snatch the fish out of its throat, by the tail.
The frigate must have been laughing too hard at its own joke because moments later he drops the ill-gotten goods back into the sea.
The cormorant is obviously ticked off.
It now sits on the water and unleashes a rapid-pulsed bray every time a frigate flies even remotely close. The sound of a cussing cormorant it isn’t pretty.
The white terns are faster learners. With rapidly flapping wings they dart in and out of the frigate biosphere. In a canny display of hit and run they barely break stride as they dip their heads like the cone on a Concorde and attack the small fish closest to the surface. Without waiting to swallow their prey they take off in evasive zig-zag patterns, for they have now become the hunted. The frigates often double-team the faster terns hoping to make them drop the fish. Ah, but the terns make sharp u-turns around the palapas at the end of the docks and easily out-maneuver the less agile frigates.
Sometimes, the bullying frigates take off after the smaller terns for pure sport. Perhaps they are being territorial, or bored or simply trying to sharpen their thievery skills. I think the terns may enjoy the game — as frigates and terns both seem to hurl torrents of insults back and forth during the brief chase.
I’ve watched the frigate birds feign attempts at catching their own fish. They rarely seem to break the water and come up with one. If they do, they can count on several of their own giving chase.
Of course, when the local fishermen clean their catch, flocks of frigates and pelicans become a sideshow, swooping in for the easy handout, crowding each other for the front row seats and hoping to snatch the entrails before the fish and stingrays below get to them.
For the most part, the pelicans are aloof to the cormorant-frigate-tern turf wars. They swoop in from nowhere and more or less crash-land on the water send-up up a surprisingly noisy splash. After they upright themselves, the pelican strategy seems to be to wait for the startled fish to return to this spot, then grab a few for lunch.
The frigates give them a wide berth.
Meanwhile, other dramas play out closer to shore.
A blue heron once landed in the shallows and stood nearly motionless for almost 24 hours. It seemed to be seeking food but only rarely stabbed to the water. I wondered if it might be recovering from some bad sushi or sulking over a difficult romance.
During the second day, a beautiful white egret nearly equal in size, landed on the concrete wall not far behind the heron’s post. The egret sized up the heron and then without provocation attacked. Both spread wings wide and nearly wrapped their long slender necks around each other as the squawked and tried to score points with their beaks.
The egret flew off. The heron returned to its calm meditative posture. Hours later, the egret returned but stayed onshore and kept its distance. This time the heron was alert and with the prospect of a surprise attack lost, the egret flew off to find mischief elsewhere.
The heron, too, eventually flew off in a graceful sweep — in the opposite direction.
This area right in front of our condo is popular with fishermen as well. They come by land and by boat with their nets and toss them in, trolling for bait. Sometimes a single toss is more than enough, sometimes it will take several passes and frequent flinging of the net.
Of course the frigates immediately shadow the fishermen, looking for an easy hand out.
All the action isn’t on the water.
In the foreground, iguanas plod across the sand. Hummingbirds flit about the bushes below our deck. A pair of orange, yellow and black orioles chase each other through one particular palm tree, as they have for nearly a year now. Great-tail grackles will drop on the rail for a moment’s respite before returning to their mysterious duties — which seem to involve preening along the concrete retaining wall, while hurling insults at everyone else. Yellow butterflies on a chaotic north-to-south trajectory, flutter in and out of of the palm trees. Once in a while an osprey will zip through this scene, snaring a fish in its talons — and nobody messes with it. Especially the frigate birds.
Occasionally a blue heron alights upon the dock and surveys the locale with an air of aloofness. Invariably it finds our little environs wanting and leaves in a huff for less-busy spots to the north.
This is but a small sampling of the pageantry that unfolds before my second-floor perch on the red Adirondack chair. The thing is, this show does not launch at a specific time, as do the films screening at the local Paradise Theater. Oh, you might say mornings are better than mid-day and dusk offers a whole new episode with fresh characters, but you can’t set your watch by it.
You have to step outside of what author-philosopher Sam Keen calls the “everyday cacophony.”
You have to sit still and wait, without expectation.
To many, this is called “doing nothing.”
To me, it is opening myself up to an incredible world of beauty, natural interplay and random inexplicable happenings. Sitting still is my ticket to the Big Show.
The currency is a calming of the restless mind, not easy to do in this noise-saturated world.
As Keen so well puts it in “Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds,” “The omnipresence of noise and speed destroys the rhythm of meditative and contemplative thought. We literally can not hear ourselves think. We go from word to word to word , instead of from silence to word to silence to word. Our talk is loquacious rather than deliberative. Listening is rapidly becoming a lost art.”
OK, on this business of hearing and seeing the natural world on the other side of silence — or stillness, if you will –is still quite new to me.
I am still drawn to bright shiny objects, chirpy noises of commerce, strident blathering of media — all those things that create distraction and anxiety. We all are. This is the world that has been created around us. It isn’t a bad world, just not a real one.
When is the last time you found yourself far from the maddening crowd? And when you do, how long it must take to turn off the chatter in your head in order to fully grasp the natural symphony of sounds and sights that surround you.
Sitting still is a gift I do not take lightly. I have meditated with varying degrees of success most of my adult life. I still find it hard to turn off the chatter. I am forever reaching toward mindfulness and not quite attaining it. I accept that it is a lifelong process, not a goal line that is clearly chalked out before me.
Far from being frustrated, I embrace the joys that this effort presents.
Right now, that lone pelican bobbing on the gently rippling, sun-dappled sea is the most beautiful thing before my eyes. I can watch for a while without worrying about the next three things on my “real world” to-do list. I can take it in without requiring an iPod soundtrack to lend it meaning.
And when it flies off, I will return to my everyday world, perhaps a bit calmer, a bit more open, a bit more responsive and maybe a touch, just a touch, wiser for what I have experienced.
And, you know: happier.