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Night Skimmers and Absolute Sympathy: On a Little Island in Queens, NY

So we grew together, Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, But yet an union in partition, Two lovely berries moulded on one stem.

— Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Fall brings richer sunsets, the kind of light that icy cirrus clouds toss around until sherbet-orange refracts into indigo. When the saltwater in Jamaica Bay cools — with the skyline of Manhattan looming on the Western horizon — hordes of peanut bunker fish swirl in the thousands, always in a clockwise direction. Striped bass and blue fish follow, along with harbor seals and sand tiger sharks, egrets, blue herons, bufflehead ducks, life-partner swans and lingering geese. Gone are the many chicks of Spring, most often leaving the nest, alone, in search of their own sky realm. On the little island of around two thousand souls where I live with my wife and amphibious dog, birds are the beginning and end of everything, whether it’s the hundreds roosting in the ancient yew trees abutting our little house, or the thousands of ducks of many sorts in the bay, even the solitary osprey on the island of eel grass a quarter mile from the shore, birds reign. On certain nights in the Fall, just as the hyper-colors of the sky fade into blues and grays, a clicking fills the dew-thick air. This is a sound beyond sounds, one that seems to skim just beneath the surface of perception, but teases the ears enough to know it’s there. In that twilight, a stealthy silhouette skims the surface of the water, with streamlined wings and a gracefulness beyond words. And yet…there are two of them.

Black Skimmers seem to fly through two realms of existence, the mundane and the magical. It took me two Falls to realize that the bird with a strange, downturning orange bill I had seen countless times on the shores was the same bird I’d seen at Dusk that resembled the X-wing from Stars Wars, only far more versatile and elusive. On shore, the Black Skimmer looks like a seagull mated with a toucan, by no means unappealing, but nothing like this little force of nature appears in flight. The eerie clicking comes from the bird’s beak as they skim along the surface of the water, snapping the bill whenever it perceives a fish. This paradox of appearance aside, what borders on the magical is the absolute sympathy of these birds flying in pairs, wingtip to wingtip, through mind-bending turns and full-reversals, never leaving more than a hair’s breadth between those gliding wings. I’ve been out on a kayak at Dusk and those Skimmers announce themselves with a clicking, just before they whoosh by my ear, the tip of one of the pair’s wing just brushing the back of my ear. It’s certainly a game everyone involved wins, even if I almost flipped over the kayak, out of surprise. While the nature of swans and their mates can be as clear as day, the coupled Skimmers are something far more elusive, with a touch of the telepathic.

For already, sometime, I have been a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird, and a silent fish in the sea.

— Empedocles

Gracefulness lies in the movements that are unseen. A prima ballerina is supreme through more than her sauters and glissers, it’s the hidden movements that intertwine into the dance, like the silences between notes that distinguish music from noise, words from hums. Words only have meaning in the stream of life and thinking, just as the Black Skimmer is only the ‘Night Skimmer’ when they are One, in flight, like no other birds I’ve ever seen. Every single living thing is many things, but most of them appear like themselves, throughout the day. If the Night Skimmer is anything in flight, ‘they’ are Nature’s gliding dance of the gray, somewhere between sympathy and magic, day and night.

Hayden Moore

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