There was a pestilence amongst the birds, their throats so swollen they could neither swallow nor sing. Within hours the sparrows and the pied wagtails toppled from their nests or fell starving from the sky. Then the waders, the fulmars and the big herring gulls, too exhausted by hunger to fish or fly, lay inert on the sand and amongst the rocks, their useless wings hanging like November leaves drooping from fog chilled trees.
The pigeon feeders brought them bags of seed and corn, but there were few birds of any kind still able to eat. Young people in white coats and thick gloves gathered up sick birds, put them gently into wicker baskets and took them away. Unlike the gulls newly cleaned from spilled diesel oil who had come back to the beach at the beginning of Spring shining-feathered and plump with good food, none of the plague stricken birds were returned.
Many of the winter migrants, frightened by the great sickness and cursing their Goddess Rhianonn for punishing them for sins unknown, flew back early to their summer homes, risking the bitter hazards of that unseasonable journey and breeding grounds not yet fit to sustain them. Many of the gulls, convinced that the spreading of the plague was the work of humans, wrecked their gardens and attacked their children. In retaliation humans came with guns and shot every seagull they could find - it had been a massacre. The pigeon feeders wept, and the few gull survivors screamed their protest against the wind, and then they too left the shore.
The air was menacing, unnaturally warm as the copper sun sank into the early Spring sea, and the Turnstone was afraid. In her carapace of rich brown, with neat black collar and white shirt, she was an elegant bird, quick and sure in her scavenging, flicking over debris and stones with her short powerful beak, unworried by chivying pigeons and disgruntled herring gulls. This evening, as every evening, she flew up far above the beach to the concrete bridge across the steep-pathed Gap and settled down on a high ledge where the remnant of her flock roosted well away from the unwelcome attentions of small boys and other predators. But she did not sleep.
When dawn came, chill and grey, the exhausted Turnstone thought that this day might be her last. Looking down from her high perch she saw a procession of humans led by a tall, lean old man in a shabby brown cloak who looked up at the roost and smiled at the bedraggled flock. “Fly down my brothers and my sisters,” he called, “we come with wholesome food and a powerful medicine to protect you.” One by one they fluttered down on to the outstretched hands. Very gently the old man inserted a tiny dropper into the Turnstone’s beak. “There, little one,” he whispered, “very soon you will fly strong again; you will build a new nest and rear your fledglings. The beach will ring with the crying of gulls and the staccato autumn song of your returning flock.” He laid his wrinkled cheek against her neat head. “Have faith and hope, my sister; the storm is past; love is come again.”
Picture by Liz Naomi