Coastal Observations in Three Parts

Kate M Carey

(American Southeast )

Harmony

I pass my neighbours’ houses on my way to the beach. Quiet, nearly everyone at work or school. A cardinal cheeps as he flies off the branch in front of me. Is he saying hello or scolding me for interrupting?

Standing at the top of the steps leading down to the beach, I watch a rotund man unfold chairs, plant an umbrella, affix it deep into the sand, then pile Styrofoam boogie boards at the edge of his encampment. He looks at the ocean as though deciding if it is worth the work he does every morning establishing this place for his family. His confusion befuddles me. 

While the dry sand has yet to pick up the full heat of the day, my toes cool as the water laps over them and reaches towards my ankles. I offer my daily salutation to the ocean/universe/God as I step slowly forward into the waves and softly call out names …Alton, SammandKennny, MelEdgardandthe Kids…thankful but always needy, asking for continued blessings – safety, health, the fleeting lilt of happiness. 

Stepping out of the knee-deep water, I return to the ocean’s edge, pick up speed, and walk down the beach working hard to avoid adding milk to my mental grocery list or rewriting last night’s argument with my she saids becoming logical while his he saids remain emotional. I count my breaths and watch the waves build up, every third one a bit taller, its collapse more magnificent. 

The sanderlings skittle away like feathers escaping through the rip in a pillowcase. Or maybe they are sandpipers. All those tiny little birds look alike to me as humans must to them. A seagull stares balefully as I walk past, affronted like the cardinal, she flaps her wings and holds her post. Her beach, not mine. 

Tourists awaken and encampments grow like fungi on bare sands. Blue sail upon blue sail blocking the sun they drove miles to see. 

I return to my house, kiss my husband, and ask him to add milk to the grocery list.

*****

Rhythm 

What the ? 

a bird …an osprey

Flap, slap, curse, crash. 

Ocean water streams from the wing caught in braided line, strong for surf fishing. 

twee, Twee, TWEP!

 Songs shrill and short

Talons long and sharp. 

Wings flap. Body flips. 

Too close – step back! 

Fisherman steadies the rod. 

I unravel the line. 

She flies unburdened.

*****

Melody

The sky was the blue that folks here call Carolina blue as though God made it special for their basketball teams and national championships. My husband and I walk along the water’s edge, holding hands, admiring beach house renovations. A light breeze lifts my hair, caressing my skin as though the wind were a masseuse. 

After Labor Day, the island breathes deeply, life slows down, kids return to school. Retirees seeking relaxation replace families anxious to fit every watersport, restaurant, and nighttime beverage into a seven-day vacation. 

Black drum and jumping mullet, silver clad bodies rise above the sea then drop into her depths. Flounder season opens, then almost as quickly, closes. Fishing buddies line the beach, beers at the ready, cigar smoke hazy around their heads. Many are my contemporaries. Folks who voted for Carter and drank his brother’s beer. Their greying hair pokes out from beneath ball caps and bucket hats. A cooler, an extra rod and a tackle box plopped next to a well-used chair; encampments of folks hoping to provide the night’s supper. 

Concrete observations towers still hold watch over the beach. WWII Army leftovers from when Topsail Island, NC was a secret missile test site. Today, Super Stallion helicopters strong enough to carry an elephant, patrol the beach training new pilots, securing our freedoms. Camp LeJeune sprawls just miles up the beach.

My husband and I had just passed Tower 4, repurposed into a stylish home, when I noticed something rolling in the surf just past the coquinas and minnows. 

We hurried closer, scanning the sea, hearts beating faster from internal excitement and external exertion. On shore, a fisherman spun a reel bringing the dark mass closer. A bird struggled in the surf, caught in the line.

“A seagull?” my husband posited, “Too big. Holy shit! That’s an osprey and it’s not happy.”

“It just flew into my line,” the fisherman said, his distressed voice nearly lost in the bird’s writhing in the water. He slowly reeled the bird in closer. Its white, speckled head just above the water.

Ospreys are one of the coast’s largest predators. They weigh about four pounds, have a six-foot wingspan, and stand two feet tall. Dark brown with a white stomach and legs, and that glorious, speckled head. This one’s eyes were full of anger and fear. 

Some winter over here, though most head south next month, returning in the spring to breed. Ospreys lay two to four eggs that incubate for more than a month, then hatch one at a time about five or so days apart. Females sit in the nest, though males trade off while the females feed. They make shared parenting look easy. Some say the female, bigger than the male, pushes her weight around. 

Their numbers dropped last century, but thanks to government bans and controls on pesticides, they’ve flourished, nesting high on channel markers, those aluminium poles that mark the Intracoastal waterways. 

Ospreys have excellent eyesight. They hover over the water, then dive to grab a fish dinner. That must have happened here.

The bird flopped on the sand; its tweep tweep tweep sounding angrier as I neared. Fight or flight clear in her eyes. Her fear, it was her I decided, stoked my own dread of losing freedoms. I had to help that bird.

My husband covered the bird with his t-shirt hoping to control the wide wings slapping at the sand, their span about six feet wide. Talons gripped it tightly. “I won’t be getting that back,” he said. “Not in one piece.”

The fisherman handed the rod to my husband. He and I approached the osprey, caution in our steps. Up close I saw fishing line had wrapped around one wing and tangled around the bird’s neck.  

Ospreys are fierce, fast hunters. They’ve been clocked at fifty miles per hour by the time they hit the water. They dive, grab a fish, and have enough vertical lift to take off directly from the surface. They position the fish head forwards to create the best aerodynamics for an efficient getaway. 

Talons to grip, beaks to rip, and osprey feet have a sharp, spiney scale to affix onto the slippery fish. Fish hawks, as they’re called down here, prefer fish, though I once saw one snatch a small bird off a live oak branch. They’re one badass bird.

“It’s okay,” I said, voice soft, like when I trim my cat’s claws. I pulled the line, unwinding her tether, slowly, respectful of both beak and talons. Pulled a bit more, then we jumped back, as the inches of line slid off her wet feathers.

The osprey screamed as she lifted, taking a tiny piece of my heart along with her. She screamed again as she flew up and over the dunes. Mad and majestic.

Kate M Carey

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Kate M Carey grew up on 88 acres in Ohio , USA, and now explores her coastal environment meeting natives and newcomers to chronicle their stories. Carey’s work has appeared in Reckon Review, Noctua, The Tishman Review, Panoply, and the anthologies, Things We Carry Still, Dialogue at the Bar With Drinking Partner, Savannah Writers, and County Lines Journal. She writes regularly for Topsail Magazine and edible port city and reads for Reckon Review.

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