Our book today is the utterly charming A Gathering of Shore Birds, a 1960 compilation of the wonderful bird-life columns Dr. Henry Marion Hall wrote for Audubon Magazine more than half a century ago. The editors at Devon-Adair (as the outfit used to be in palmier days, happy and sane) had the inspired notion to collect Hall’s columns, supplement them with some of his other bird-writings, add a light but helpful ornithological critical apparatus, and adorn the whole thing with illustrations by the great bird-artist John Henry Dick, who could at times be an irascible SOB but who possessed a subtle touch all but unrivaled in 20th century natural history artwork.
The result is a book to treasure, a guide book and natural history of the roughly 60 species of shore birds that live and breed in North America. These birds, members of the much larger Charadrii family, will be instantly familiar to anybody who’s ever walked on a beach or paddled down a stream: they flicker at the edge of wave-wash, they stalk daintily on the verge of swamp-grass, and they provide the cheeping, whirling soundtrack to virtually all the places where water meets land.
These plovers and pipers and curlews come alive under Hall’s pen. He’s their passionate appreciator, shifting easily from the specific details that are any bird watcher’s delight (as Roland Clement pithily puts it in his Introduction, “only propinquity reveals the charm of birds”) to the broader canvas where naturalists tend to be at home. When he writes about the common sanderling, for instance, he contrasts the bird’s humble appearance with the surprising vastness of its world:
The flight of shore birds on a rising tide shows a wild ecstasy capable of carrying them considerable distances before the impulse fades and hunger makes them pause. Our coastal measurements mean little to their long pinions – a hundred miles from the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine to Highland Light in Massachusetts – what do such insignificant intervals mean to migrants which flit from Baffin Bay to the Argentine?
(“Taking off from some northern strand, many of them have barely struck their stride when they sight the tip of Cape Cod, flung like a golden sickle in the sea,” he writes, here as so often elsewhere in the book orienting himself by the Cape)
Hall began his love affair with the bird world in the traditional Darwinian manner: with a loaded gun. But he eventually saw the cruelty and folly of shooting the things he loved, and so he turned to conservation and became a voice of admiration in the pages of Audubon – a frequently very eloquent voice, as when he’s writing about the Red-backed Sandpiper and digresses poetically about the worlds contained in even the simplest bird calls:
The sands, shores, and reedy wilderness find vocal expression in the flight-notes of many shore birds. Every region and every hour of the day seems to have its minstrel. Night cries out in the notes of the birds that fly by night. In the humble lay of the woodcock, water lilies under stars and moonlight swamps may be heard. The ethereal winnowings of Wilson’s Snipe render audible the mystic silences of sweet-water meadow land and northern bogs. And in the same way the play of sunlight on the sand, the moan of distant surf, and even the wild beauty of barren lands find echoes in the lays of dozens of other shore birds.
I recently found an old weathered copy of A Gathering of Shore Birds (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course, although the original copy I owned came from a floor-creaky old used bookshop – on Cape Cod, naturally) and savored it again before adding it to my “Nature” bookcase. Maybe it’ll stay there this time.
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