Society & Culture & Entertainment Education

On the Cape May Shores

We scurried around, pursuing our new hobby from waves to dunes and beyond.
Most numerous near high tide mark was a confusion of prints, patterns made by three-toed, webbed feet.
From their size and our knowledge of what well-footed birds were common on Cape May shores, it was easy to identify them as the footprints of walking gulls.
They overlapped, criss-crossing back and forth where the birds had investigated the sea's edge for food freshly washed up by the surf.
Farther on a group of gulls stood, beaks to the wind.
As we piled our belongings on the beach the better to explore our new problem, the birds raised raucous cries and took to flight.
Each squatted for an instant, then leaped into the air as it spread its wings, and flapped away with its fellows.
We examined the beach they left, and found gull prints all facing to windward.
Here and there a pinion tip had struck the sand as the birds rose; a crease marked each spot.
Since the tracks overlapped very little, it was obvious that the gulls had scarcely moved while resting on the beach.
Another trail led us from the wet beach to the dry dunes.
Many marks made by sharp-pointed feet composed the track.
It ended in an oval hole near a few blades of grass.
Many similar tracks converged to enter this same steep, slanting tunnel.
They diverged to become separate trails in various directions.
One Headed in the direction of the sweet gale bushes beyond the dunes.
Another skirted a few clamshells, half buried in the sand, to make a circuit and return to the burrow mouth.
In the depths of the tunnel, the trail-maker hid from the heat of day-a pale-gray ghost crab.
We could see from its tracks where the crab ran forward instead of sidewise; then all eight footprints could be recognized, as its legs stepped along in sequence.
Here the crab stopped and changed direction sharply, only to shift again parallel to that in which it started out.
Short trails from the burrow opening told of trips the crab made.
One started out bravely, but soon stopped, where the animal, without turning around, had raced back sidewise toward the safety of its underground shelter.
Other, seemingly similar tracks, ended in little piles of dry sand.
They showed where the crab threw earth brought up from its burrow, spreading it at some distance from the opening and drawing less attention to its home.
With a flash of sulphur-yellow wings, a grasshopper flew along the beach and lit nearby.
Wings folded, it vanished completely.
Its peppered pattern on back and wing covers matched the grains of sand perfectly.
Suddenly it took to flight again, leaving a star-shaped mark upon the beach.

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