A Cape Cod Notebook 10/2/07

listenShorebirds in the Fens

By Robert Finch

Last week business called me to Boston for the day, and for lack of a more natural environment, I decided to have lunch on the Fenway, a park area behind the Museum of Fine Arts. "Fen" is an Old English word meaning a low, flat, swampy land. The Boston Fens is part of Frederick Law Olmstead's grand 19th century "Emerald Necklace," or connected green spaces, running through Boston. It's all that's now left of what was once a vast marshy area covering what is now Back Bay. Much of it is composed of shallow murky pools filled with tires, metal chairs, and a varied assortment of fetid an d unpromising things. But the grass is green, the banks are lined with billowing willows, and if one does not breathe too deeply or inquire too deeply into their depths, the scene is pleasant enough.

I was sitting under a tree on one of the banks when I noticed a single medium-sized shorebird out in the middle of one of those dark sloughs. It was darting its long bill about in the urban muck. I recognized the bird as a solitary sandpiper, a bird of inland ditches and pools not commonly seen on Cape Cod because it's migration route is normally west of us. I watched him take his lunch as I too k mine, and shortly he was joined by a flock of 70 or 80 small, red-backed sandpipers, known as dunlin s, that whirled in from the left and took center stage. They swooped and darted over the surface to the far end of the pool and then wheeled and came winging back in that mysterious, shifting, but tight formation that shorebirds have. They would bank suddenly and show their white undersides, like a swift dazzle of stars that flash and go out again in a wink.

They flew as one for several minutes, passing and repassing to no apparent purpose but sheer aerial joy and beauty - as if they had evolved to refine gregariousness into a high, airborne art. They made several close passes over the solitary sandpiper, but true to his name, he ignored them. Finally, te n or fifteen of the dunlins separated themselves from the main flock and came to rest on a muddy bar, scattering themselves like seeds and pursuing their individual meals as though they never had anythi ng to do with one another. Yet I knew that they were ready, in an instant, to resume their strange, ae rial, corporate life. The rest of the flock made a last turn over the fen and then wheeled off over the t ops of the thrashing willows like starstuff drawn off by a passing comet.

I was suddenly struck by the realization that these Fens - demoralized, degraded, diminished, contained and polluted as they are - are yet tidal. They still feel, however dimly and feebly, the t ug and pulse of the ocean to which they were once more closely connected, a connection that was attested to by the presence of these migrating shorebirds even in the midst of concrete and exhaust fumes. The tide, I thought, is like blood. It will not be contained - it will in and out.