Storing Sand and Feathers

by Susan Cerulean

The pass that pours out to the Gulf of Mexico is a sheet cake frosted with shallow mocha waves. When the tidal pulse is feeble or the winds are light, it is hard to guess what lies beneath the water.

If you intend to launch your boat here and run out to sea, you had better study the path an experienced captain picks through the inlet. Still, you will need some nerve. Many times, my husband Jeff and I have seen a boatload of out-of-towners try to cross over to the Gulf and hang right up on their props. Politeness has no place: local fishermen will speed right past the hapless newcomers through the narrow gaps they have learned so well.

One winter morning, a new moon low tide and a pushy north wind peeled back the Gulf from the island’s deltaic tip. Where the water had been was a sandbar, astonishingly naked, sprawled in five long banks. It pointed like my grandmother's arthritic forefinger—each joint, each sandbank slightly off kilter—towards Cape San Blas. This would be a very good time to commit its humps and breaches to memory for future boating, I thought.

On the warm days of late summer and fall, nearly a thousand brown pelicans base their days on this delta, when it breaches at low tide. But not a bird spends the night. They organize into brief skeins of ten or fifteen individuals and fly east at sunset. Evenly spaced and entrained to one another, they lift and lower over gentle hills of warm air we cannot see, no longer pausing to fish or dive. We have been told they fly to an isolated sandbank off the far end of the island, where they can sleep safe from raccoons, wild pigs, and people.

One morning, we nosed our motorboat through a break in the sandbar to investigate the pelicans' evening path. We cruised east along the vast beach of St. Vincent, not quite sure where to go.

"What's that on the horizon, do you think?" asked Jeff,  pointing out a toothy profile emerging from the sea. 

"It looks like a low city skyline," I replied. “But that can't be possible. Do you think it could be some kind of barge?”

"No," said Jeff.  "The water is too shallow." It wasn't Little St. George, the next island in the chain; the tip of that uninhabited island had emerged into view off to the left. We squinted harder through our binoculars. The mirage revealed itself.

"It's the pelicans!” said Jeff. Sure enough, as we grew closer, my eyes picked out the silhouettes of birds, hugely distorted and wavering at the junction between sky and sea. We approached the bar from the Gulf side, and ran along its considerable length—a mile maybe—with a bulge and a hook at each end. Near the skinnied-out center of the bar, Jeff steered the boat ashore.  I set the anchor on a short leash, digging its points into the sand. Then we walked for a while, giving lots of berth to the shorebirds loafing at either tip: semipalmated plovers, some sanderlings, a black-bellied plover. In a few widely spaced groups, brown pelicans slept hard against the sand; a line of twenty bathed on an ankle-deep spit. 

At its greatest height, the island stood no more than half a foot above the level of the sea.  Small ghost crabs scuttled about the swales. Where the sand swelled highest, a few clumps of shrubby perennials called beach elder hunkered about to our knees. Windblown sand had filled in around their roots and was building tiny new dunelets, using the plants as sand fences. 

"This looks like a barrier island in the making," said Jeff, growing excited. “See how its profile undulates? It's almost a mimic of St. Vincent’s dunes and swales. You might think it is a newly forming island, but this sandbar is actually what is called a flood tidal delta, a great big one." 

Jeff pointed towards West Pass, the major outlet between Little St. George and St. Vincent. He explained that when tidal currents rush in and out of the mouths of passes, they relax their hold on some of the sediment they carry. 

"The sand volume stored here is phenomenal," Jeff mused. "In some cases, there is more sand in these deltas than in the nearby islands." He told me that since the Apalachicola River can no longer deliver "new" sand from the mountains, deltaic deposits like this furnish these islands with enough raw material to rebuild and recover from erosion, and outpace sea level rise—for now.

This was a place for storing sand, yes, but it was the evidence of the birds that entranced me. The sun was high and most birds were away feeding, but we could see how recently the sand had been pocked and probed. Where birds had strutted or stood in groups preening, the ground was stamped in little patterns of chained foot prints. We stepped barefoot between splatters of quarter-sized guano.  It looked as if the sky had hurled white sticky hail at the sandbar. 

And every bit of the damp sand clutched feathers: the swift flight feathers of terns, enormous quilled pelican plumes, and, all over everything, a sifting of fluffy down. Feathers for contour and color, feathers that bristle and signal, feathers for propping and warming and digesting. The beach elders were stuck all over with the tiniest flakes of feathers, like miniature Christmas trees ornamented with down. Was this island growing feathers, or shedding them?

Later that night, a storm blew in from the Gulf. I pressed my face against the sliding glass door of our rental house to watch. Lightning daggered through the thunderheads, igniting campfires within the bodies of the clouds and illuminating the island across the pass. Rain came pecking and sliding down our windows.  I thought for a long time about the birds, and how, to be safe, they choose the barest sand to stand on, whatever the weather that comes.

(Note: "Storing Sand and Feathers" is part of a larger work-in-progress entitled Coming to Pass, which concerns north Florida's Gulf coast: both its awesome biodiversity, and the anthropogenic changes, especially sea level rise, that will alter it forever.)

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