It’s quiet, sunset, low tide. Chains click on old bicycles along East Cliff drive. Monterey Bay is gray-blue, flat, and greasy straight from the open Pacific to the power plant stacks at Moss Landing.
The smell of krill scales the cliffs and washes over the old wooden benches where longboarders contemplate their rides. There’s only one strip of color, on the rocks just below high tide line, where a vivid seaweed clings green as lawnmower clippings.
Now a piece of sea breaks loose in long scalene triangles: wings, felt-gray, sharp, unmarked. It’s a pair of wandering tattlers just back from Alaska, needling ahead on long, straight beaks, trailing dull yellow legs. They’re gray above, matte as a catfish, pale seafoam white at the belly. Amid the green, after a final flutter of their long, long wings, they’re suddenly much smaller.
Wandering tattlers are the dapper twins of this blog’s namesake, the surfbird (Aphriza virgata). Tattlers are whimsical, like their names. Surfbirds are squatter, grayer, their legs and beak shorter, their curves more bulbous, less supersonic. But both species patrol dark Pacific mudstones late in the year in Santa Cruz, quietly pursuing their business where surfers launch from reefs.
The tattlers arrive first and I’m always glad to see them. They’re like shy willets but smaller, with no wingstripe to scream at you as soon as they take off. They’re not as startlingly, cinnamonly beautiful as a godwit or a curlew, either. Tattlers are rarer, less gregarious, rewarding only those willing to bring binoculars and point them at rockpiles.
Here’s one nosing around the rocks to seaward, thrusting its beak half-open into wet sand loosened by a receding wave. The tattler spies a ripple or a wriggle and turns back to shore, peers under a rock, into the hollow cut by water draining back to sea.
It’s neglecting the very first rule of ocean living: Never turn your back. And indeed here comes a wave a-lapping now. Maybe six, maybe eight inches high, that’s still overhead on a crouching sandpiper and I don’t see how it can escape.
Perhaps that’s what the long legs are for. At the hiss of the wave pulling back from the sand, it takes two chicken-like struts up onto the rock and then those arrowhead wingtips are out, shooting in front of the foam and down the beach, a gray diamond flashing across the moss. In its wake, there’s just dusk.