If you want to go birding at the beach, with unparalleled beauty as background, try Montauk. For the past 21 summers my wife and I have been staying near a mile-plus stretch of beach, which begins just east of Montauk Town and ends at Ditch Plains. There one finds arid, rugged and eroded cliffs that dominate the landscape. When I first saw this landscape I called the scene Mars because of its alien looking beauty. Atop the cliffs is a spectacular walk through what is now called Shadmoor State Park. It is a place where one can see a wide variety of birds from gulls to sparrows, once in a while deer and even more rarely a turtle, amidst scenery that is nothing less than spectacular. It is here that one may encounter what I call Montauk moments, which can stop you in your tracks.
It's not yet 8:30 a.m. on a summer morning as my wife and I walk the cliff trails of Shadmoor State Park. She sees a song sparrow in the scrub. Its striated breast is clear and we look for the telltale chocolate spot on it. This one is curiously quiet and not in a melodious mood this morning. Why? It's breakfast time and the bird has a grub or a worm in its bill. There's an olive colored bird on a plant with blackish wings that looks like a washed out pocket parakeet. Quickly a bright-as-a lemon, yellow bird with jet -black wings lands on a nearby bit of scrub. Side by side, as if this were a page in a field guide, are a female and male American goldfinch. I just stare at the pair. Unreal. This is a Montauk moment.
I probably would have missed the turtle on the narrow part of the path but my wife didn't. At first its shell looked like a large, dark oblong seashell. Was it laying eggs? My wife steps over it and we both survey the small reptile with binoculars. Its head is withdrawn but slowly appears. I carefully step over it and see that at the bottom of its shell there are delicate lines like those made in wet sand by tiny critters. One of its tiny marble-like, black eyes silently and steadfastly looks at me. Is it anxiety or wisdom beyond my intelligence to understand reflected in that eye? My wife intones me to go and we leave.
Another morning I walk the cliffs alongside a newly erected wooden fence built to keep people away from the ravaged cliff edges, which can be dangerous. With the continuous sound of the ocean as background music I walk the length of the path, which stretches to the horizon and rises toward Ditch Plains, where the ocean comes into view. Waves lazily roll in. The vast ocean's gentle curve and blue sky stops me in my tracks. Another Montauk moment.
Walking back, I dial my wife on our cell phone. Not hearing a ring, I stop and turn, for better reception. Out of the corner of my eye I see what I think are the two biggest dogs in captivity. They are in fact two deer at the edge of the eroded cliff looking out at the ocean. This is exactly what people do up here: stand or sit at the cliff's edge and look out at the vista. The deer don't look for long; they get back on the path and start to walk in my direction but quickly vanish into the scrub. The aroma of burning wood, perhaps from the remains of a beach campfire, carried by the breeze punctuates this Montauk moment. I stand there overwhelmed. I walk the rest of the way seemingly on air.
Another morning on the beach where the cliffs are dramatically decimated, several herring gulls are standing like sentinels on rocks in the water. The incoming tide is delivering breakfast. Fresh crab is on the menu. Gulls bend over or go into the water snaring crabs in their yellow bills, easily swallowing them. Having swallowed a crab, one gull pauses to dip its bill into the water to cleanse it. Dainty. An immature gull drops a crab down in the shallow water and starts to pound and tear the crab when the incoming water carries it away. Opps! The gull scurries after the crab, retrieves it and carries its prize to shore where the bird drops it in the sand and starts to pull off the crustacean's legs.
Looking around at the dried ravaged cliffs I notice that haze is coming in. In minutes it has shrouded the beach, making it difficult to see more than a short distance. Had I been up on the cliffs I would have noticed trails of vapor coming up over the cliff tops, crossing the path and partially obfuscating the two WW II bunkers that are up there. Down here however, it just quietly appears. As I walk the shrouded beach, everything, damp sand, discarded old rope and beach houses appear mysterious. This is more than a Montauk moment. Thick haze or fog is one of nature's special effects. I walk through it with a child's never ending curiosity as one thing after another appears as if in slow motion. The moment will end only when I get back to where we are staying. I take my time as everything is so interesting and who knows what will appear next.