Are these the bravest birds on the planet? I always go down to the sea to be with them for an hour or two as they arrive. For they can tell me of the Cape of Good Hope, of Dakar, even Rio de Janeiro. They may have just crossed the ocean from New York. Most pass by in an hour or two.
These little aerials of the tempest are here today, gone tomorrow. I would see more of them if I went to Svalbard for the Summer, or Kaiser Willhelm II Land for our winter down in the Antarctic. Some arctic terns have made the 25,000 mile annual round trip 18 times. If you’ve ever handled one, you’ll know the taut, tight sheer feel of the feathers.
They have always seemed to me like blades of ice, so clean, sharp, and hard, so white and crisp, and so much a product of the fine thin silver fish they eat which in their own turn have darted off in defiance of death to the very end of their lives in the oceans. These things are so finely tuned. If you do ever happen to go to the arctic to see them on their nests you will see the brooding bird sitting like a boat, her white wings and finely pointed tail raised like white sails, her black cap and red beak a pennant.
She is too at home in those lonely places. But with none of our need for survival. Her travel is perfection, honed by millions of years of travel. If you ever visit a tern colony , on a rare calm day of blue sky you will know the curious feeling that you are always in a dream world. The birds are brilliant white. They float slowly into the wind, their wings scarcely moving at all. They looked like angels to medieval people. The call like the sea squealing on pebbles. It is a mesmeric sensation to stand beneath and feel that you might find heaven to be something like this.
But their nests, like their lives are on the cusp. They often lay their eggs no more than a tide mark’s width above the hungry waves. There they play with pebbles, banking them in a lip around their warmth as if that alone will save them from a sudden surge. Their eggs are like pebbles rounded by the waves. You would easily step on them if unaware. I have seen sea-picks picked and patterned around the nest for decoration. Once I found a nest trimmed with tellins, arranged like the scales of an armadillo.
They are not frail birds despite their looks. They have beaks as sharply crimson as new-flowed blood.
They might dive and batter your skull if you trespass on their nests. When the young are raised they think nothing of returning back towards another pole. How good it must be to have no fear of the vast dark ocean. To be alone in the abyss of nature, to return each year almost to the day from one end of the globe to the other. Always to appear immaculate, to be perfect in shape, to enjoy the worst dangers the planet can provide. See them now on the the beaches.