Patricia Contaxis

Little Gull

The morning after yet another mass school shooting—this one at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas—I drive to a wild beach on the northern California coast with my daughter and her college roommate. They are both twenty-six years old. Having moved beyond the tension and defensiveness of adolescence, they are easy with me.

We are driving to the Point Reyes Headlands, to see the elephant seals for which my daughter has been a docent all winter long. Hundreds of yearlings and females loll on the beach at this late point in the season, in a state of molt. We drive along the coast, a long, winding route, over coastal cliffs, through chaparral and oak forest. My daughter and I quietly identify raptors along the way, interjecting their names into the conversation—kestrel, red-tail, turkey vulture.

As we near the beach where the elephant seals have hauled out, we enter a shroud of fog. Our plan is for me to spend the day birding in the coastal hills while the girls hike out to where the seals are clustered in colonies, dotting the shoreline over several miles. They slide on their packs, and we say goodbye for the day. Heading down the beach, into the fog, my daughter and her friend seem to disappear into the distance, and an uneasiness overtakes me.

I stroll with my binoculars to the lagoon at the end of the parking lot. Two men, middle-aged, are studying the water. A couple of slender water birds are stutter-gliding and whirling, speed-dipping their long beaks into the muddy lagoon. The men lean against a beat-up contractor’s truck, wearing outdoor gear: rough, simple, well-worn.

I catch the eye of the younger man and he points to the birds. He understands my question, and answers, “Red-necked phalaropes.”

There are seven phalaropes across the entire waterway. Red-necked phalaropes are small shorebirds, about the size of a cedar waxwing, a slender bird with the sharp lines and profile of a mourning dove. Their necks are a deep rufous, offset by a bright white throat and jet-black face and beak. This is a pretty great sighting. We talk about the harrier that has been quartering the surrounding fields. The men are friends, familiar and chatty with one another. They have come here separately, each in their own battered pickup. I move on.

In a field upslope from the beach, I watch a male harrier, perched on a snag, hold down a rodent with one sharply taloned foot and tear into its living flesh to feed. In between bites, it scans the surrounding field, ever-watchful for predators and marauders. Each winter during the pupping season, bull elephant seals, weighing up to forty-five hundred pounds, kill seal pups, running over and crushing them. One can only guess at their actions and motives. 

I leave the harrier to his meal and walk back through the fields and onto the beach. The female elephant seals have birthed and weaned their pups. Having gone without food for the twenty-eight days during which they nurse their newborns, the females then leave the beach and swim out to feeding grounds, returning weeks later for the molt. The weanlings, rotund, topped off on super-fatted mother’s milk, are on their own to learn how to swim, dive and find food. There is a 60% mortality rate among elephant seal pups and weanlings.

There are surf scoters offshore, some pelicans. A youth group is here, middle school-age kids and a few adult leaders. The kids jostle one another. A few at the water’s edge, in board shorts and bathing suits, run in and out of the freezing surf. They screech from shock and delight. Some have wandered up the beach, exploring the coves and beach wrack, clusters of young human animals alongside flocks of shore birds.

I eat lunch under cypress trees where goldfinches and hummingbirds flit amongst the branches. The beach is at the mouth of a narrow, upslope valley that ends at Drake’s Bay. A thick curtain of fog, sliding down the valley, has bottle-necked at the bay, spreading along the shore. In the recesses of my mind, anxiety sits like an offshore weather system, not the dominant system but stirring the air, the temperature, the quality of the light. I have two errant thoughts: Are we in cell range? Is there a radio in the visitor center in case we need a ranger? I catch myself thinking through steps toward search and rescue.

And then I connect the dots of my unconscious.

Nineteen children, all eight, nine, ten years old, murdered by a gunman, a youth himself, eighteen years old, fresh from the murder of his grandmother, then onto the school. The parents, gathered at the school after hearing reports of gunfire, were kept from entering the building where their children were huddled, unprotected.

I am suddenly anxious to see my daughter. I start walking, fast, overtaken with the need to move. Dread, and then helpless anger, each a jolt, spreading through my chest and arms and legs like the fog along the shore, slowly dissipate one step at a time. After a long while I find myself back at the lagoon. The younger of the two men is still here, and I stand with him a while, watching the phalaropes. He tells me why he is here.

A little gull has been spotted over the last four or five days. It is a very rare bird, one never seen here before. He is waiting for it, and he tells me he’ll return in the morning when the gulls rest in large groups in the shelter of the beach coves. The little gull will be among its larger cousins, he tells me, and easy to spot by comparison.

Behind us there are middle schoolers in the water. A few of the girls have gone swimming. After just seconds of full immersion, they come running out with whoops of triumph. They are leggy and playful, precarious tumblers in a universe of overwhelming force and sublime momentary achievement.

In the late afternoon, my daughter and her friend return. I watch them walk toward me along the beach, emerging from the fog, their outlines first, and then the details of their being become clearer as they draw near. I am wild with relief. I keep this to myself, and greet them as I would on any other day.

© Patricia Contaxis

Patricia Contaxis’ work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Rivanna Review, The Pluralist, San Antonio Review, and Notes From The Seashore. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from California Institute of Integral Studies. Retired after more than thirty years as a marriage and family therapist, she now spends her time on Trail Patrol with the National Park Service, and on Hawkwatch with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory.

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