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Readers are welcome to challenge Nature Talks' author Cheryl Kimball's ID of these shore birds as stilted sandpipers. (Courtesy/Amy Carlson)

Shore birds remind me of crossing the marsh with my dad


WHEN I WAS a kid, my dad was warden for the clam flats across the street from our house. It was a long “across the street,” requiring the crossing of at least a half-mile of marsh before reaching the open ocean and the clam flats that were revealed with each outgoing tide. His job was to make sure those digging had licenses, and that diggers were taking no more than the permitted amount of clams. There was a shorter way to get there that required driving a little less than a mile and then walking along a woods path to the flats, which he would do occasionally.

Dad’s favorite thing was for a Red Sox game to coincide with low tide. He would tuck his deck-of-cards-sized transistor radio in one pocket of his green work clothes, a fresh battery in another, put on his waders and a cotton hat and head out across the street through a brief section of woods and onto the overgrown marsh grass listening to Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Conigliaro and the rest of the home team attempt and fail repeatedly to have a season that culminated in winning the World Series. Even though his path was washed fresh every day with two high tides, Dad knew exactly where to go to avoid the deep sand-lined wells that retained water in low tide. He knew precisely where in the channels carved through the marsh the sand was firm enough to cross without sinking.

As little kids, my older brother and I would sometimes tag along. Michael would be very serious in his walk across the marsh, starting to pick up my father’s instinct about where to walk and where not. I was not quite as intent on watching where I was going, being ever fascinated with what birds we would scare up along the way, or more likely imagining what dogs other clammers would have brought along that I could play with once we got to the flats. Michael and I didn’t like going in July and into August when the greenhead flies would land quietly and take a huge bite of flesh. But the spring and fall were beautiful, bug-free with cooler temperatures and lots of birds to see.

I recall once getting stuck in the mud choosing my own path to cross a channel instead of following my father. My dad knew to keep an eye out for my independent streak and rescued me, crying and minus a mud-stuck boot on more than one occasion.

But the time I recall most clearly was when I was older and out of the house and joined my dad for a walk across the marsh. Although we couldn’t see the deep gully yet, we were coming up to one of the channels cut through the marsh. Before we could see the sand, up from the gully flew one egret, then another, then more. “Wow,” I said to my dad, “six egrets!” He said, “Usually there are seven.” And no sooner had he finished the sentence than a seventh egret flew up from the channel and joined its flock. That was perhaps the first time I thought about the power of observation and the knowledge and familiarity gained from doing something over and over again.

A Facebook friend posted some incredible pictures over the weekend of the gathering of multiple species of shore birds along a sandy stretch in Maine. The images made me think of how lucky we are here in southern New Hampshire to have access to such a wide variety of habitats and the birds that call them home, from giant pileated woodpeckers of the forest to tiny sanderlings along the shoreline and so much in between.

I keep planning to take that walk again across the marsh to the ocean and the now nearly empty clam flats and see what I can see. If I want to channel my father and listen to the Red Sox while I do it, I will probably have to take the walk before the end of September. Or, as he likely said to his pocket transistor radio time and time again, maybe next year.

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Cheryl Kimball is a freelance photographer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at naturetalksck@gmail.com.

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