We were walking at dusk on a long spit north of Bellingham Bay when we saw them and stopped–several swarms of seabirds, flying over the water close to shore. Each swarm (or as I have since learned, a “stand,” a “wing,” or a “congregation”) contained hundreds of small birds, likely sandpipers or plovers. Each group swept back and forth as a single unit, staying in formation.
When they made a turn, the whole group flashed from a dark gray to a bright white, showing a side or upper part of their bodies. Like synchronized flashing cards in a football stadium–except these birds were much more precise. The setting sun, Lummi Island across the bay, a tanker just barely visible on the horizon–they all faded away as we stood on a low bank beside the water and watched the show.
And then we heard them also–we were close enough to hear just a slight rustling of their wings, a soft whisper, as they passed. Occasionally one would pop out of the top of the group like a kernel of popcorn being tossed up and out of the group, but eventually would make its way back into the cloud.
The tide was high, covering the huge expanse of mudflats visible earlier in the day. They feed on those mudflats at low tide. We have since learned that this flying is largely a defensive action. The group will tighten into a small core when threatened by a raptor–and no raptor would dare attack such a unit. With no danger in sight, it still appeared to be a “comfortable” formation for them.
For me? Yet another picture and sound I’ve fixed in my memory!
In the fascination of the moment, I didn’t think to grab a camera, but here’s a beautiful video (with music) from a cameraman in England capturing the same kind of experience, but with starlings instead of seabirds. It’s worth watching!