Birds. Thousands of them. A broad ribbon of pale grey along the entire beach.
It was years since I'd seen so many. I had lost hope it was still possible, that there were still flocks so large left in this damaged world. In recent months, one dramatic headline after another had made me despair that any creature, other than ants and cockroaches perhaps, could still be surviving in the sorts of numbers I had read about as a child or seen in Attenborough-narrated nature documentaries.
I drank in the sight. The birds dotted the beach like the letters on this page. What were they? A rapt stare through my binoculars and a riffle through the pages of Birds of Peru told me they were Franklin's gulls. Smaller and neater than the Laughing gull and with white eye markings like tiny crescent moons. Judging by their winter plumage, they were non-breeding migrants. I asked my husband, Frank, how many he thought there were (estimating numbers is not my strong point). He studied the flock and replied, "I'd say at least five thousand. Maybe more?"
Five thousand birds, mere metres from our car. I couldn't believe our luck.
We had just arrived in the Paracas National Reserve, three hours' drive south of Lima, Peru. It was Thursday, early afternoon, and we were planning to spend the long weekend on the beach. To avoid disturbing the birds we decided to wait with setting up camp and instead make sandwiches inside the car. While we ate, they continued to adjust to our arrival. When we emerged an hour later there was little reaction. We carefully unloaded the car and assembled the tents on the higher shelf of the beach. It was hot work under a summer sun.
Afterwards, our teens wanted to swim. To reach the sea there was no option but to cut through the ribbon of birds. As the kids slowly approached the flock, the nearest gulls shuffled sideways, left and right, somewhat agitated but reluctant to fly. A strip of beach cleared miraculously, like waves parting before Moses. Once the kids were in the water, the birds resumed their preening and gossiping. Frank made tea and we watched them contentedly.
As dusk approached, the flock became increasingly restless. Imagined threats prompted small clusters at the edges of the flock to take to the air, where they swirled and wheeled before settling on the beach once again. Gradually, more and more broke away and stayed away, circling in the darkening sky or floating on the ocean surface. I was sad to see them go, but profoundly grateful for having seen them.
After a meal of pasta with veggie sauce we went to bed early, as we always do on such trips. There's something about sea air that makes one's sleeping bag irresistible once night falls. Besides, early to bed means you can make the most of the next day.
I woke at 6am and twitched the curtain aside. A palette of soft greys. The sun's rays had not yet penetrated a low shawl of cloud that is typical of early morning on Peru's coast. I dressed and opened the back door and headed to the front of the car to brush my teeth. As I did so, a low murmur at the edge of my hearing swelled into an incessant lively chatter. They were back! The entire length of the beach was once again fringed with gulls, with more arriving as I watched.
Over breakfast, with binoculars and Birds of Peru to hand, I identified four other species accompanying the flock: small groups of rakish, orange-billed Royal terns, a pair of oystercatchers, a whimbrel pacing in the shallows, and a couple of young Belcher's gulls swaggering in their midst. The oystercatchers did not seem to welcome the Franklins on their turf, while the Franklins in turn were a little wary of the thuggish Belcher's gulls.
I fished my camera and zoom lens out of my bag and spent a happy couple of hours focusing on capturing the sheer volume of birds from different angles. I tried hard not to startle the flock, made myself small in the sand, and, little by little, some individuals came closer. They nibbled their feathers, arching their necks to sift through the down on their breasts...
... stretching first a leg and wing on one side...
...then the other set...
... and finally both wings high over their backs.
I didn't see them eat anything (later, Frank wondered whether they might be feeding on krill at night and coming to land to rest during the day). Nor was there much bickering going on, each bird minding its own business. I liked their stout, flat-footed stance, their sooty heads, grizzled like the muzzle of my elderly Jack Russell, and their portly bellies, delicately flushed pink, as though radiating or reflecting a faint heat.
After taking hundreds of photos, with loose feathers tumbling and wafting past my lens, I retreated cautiously, keeping a low profile, not caring whether I looked like some stunted, crippled creature writhing in the sand. When I was a safe distance away, I rose painfully, and stretched my cramped legs, deeply satisfied.
We were at the quieter, far end of the beach, so for several hours the birds were mostly undisturbed. But as the morning wore on, more day visitors arrived and, later, campers, like us, in their four-wheel drives. I began to worry about the gulls. Instead of walking along the top of the beach, as we had done earlier in the day to explore the other end, people ambled on the harder sand near the sea and seemed oblivious of the stress they were causing. On the contrary, they took photos and selfies of the whirlwind of birds as they repeatedly rose into the air.
A man came jogging at the edge of the water, with a small, white terrier running in front (dogs are not allowed in Peru's protected areas). Predictably, it spotted the flock and dashed towards it, scaring half into the air. Frank intercepted the man and successfully persuaded him to turn back. A moment later, to my kids' embarrassment, I called to two toddlers, who were excitedly chasing the birds, to stay away. Not that I blamed them – what child could resist such fun? - but their parents should have known better.
Nobody seemed to think it particularly special that there were so many birds congregated in one spot, or to wonder why. Not one person avoided disturbing them, unless we asked them to. And yet I knew most of these beach-goers were devoted to their pets at home and probably watched nature documentaries like I did. It made me realise that unless you're raised in nature, or perhaps trained to understand it, unless you have the same empathy for wild animals as most people do for their pets, it simply does not occur to you that wildlife might need to rest, that constant disturbance will use up precious energy, that eventually the flock will stay away.
Which is sadly what happened. By mid-morning on Saturday, after numerous frights, the birds gave up and most went somewhere else. According to The Cornell Lab, "Franklin’s gulls are very sensitive to disturbance by predators and humans; they often abandon colonies immediately when disturbed." This beach wasn't a colony, just a temporary refuge. But their wintering in Peru coincides with our summer and with a mass human exodus each weekend from coastal cities to the beaches. Where, then, could the gulls go? And how are (migratory) shorebirds going to cope in a future of climate breakdown and ever-expanding human development, on coastlines that are either increasingly built up or flooded or overwhelmed by visitors? Here's The Cornell Lab again: "According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Franklin's gull populations declined throughout the species’ range by almost 3% per year between 1968 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 76% over that period."
In a way, it was a relief the gulls had gone. Now I could stop fretting about them. But I missed them the following morning. And they had taken much of the wildness of the beach with them. There was something else, a niggle at the back of my mind. Weren't we part of the problem, too? Okay, so we didn't actively chase the birds. And they rested and returned each day to the beach in front of our camp. And, yes, we had tried to protect them. But there was no escaping the feeling that we shouldn't have been camping there in the first place. Take those angry oystercatchers, for example. They nest on the beaches, not on inaccessible cliffs like many seabirds do. How many eggs and chicks are crushed each year by cars driving on the sand? And what about the cumulative impacts of loud music and dogs and abandoned trash?
Separating a coastal Peruvian from the beach during summer is like depriving an American of their right to own a gun. Almost inconceivable. But, I wondered, what if we created wildlife refuge areas on popular beaches, while respecting the access routes of local people who harvest the ocean's resources? Could that work? Surely, if beach-goers are properly informed, they would understand and be willing to help prioritise the needs of wildlife? And perhaps a network of fishermen, volunteers, and coastal property/business owners could be established to monitor the refuge areas?
What do you think? I would love to hear from anyone who has tried this or seen it tried in their parts of the world.