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Monday, Aug. 25, 2003


Humanity takes a bite out of Mother Earth

SUNSET BEACH, North Carolina -- Sunset Beach is a summer resort town that appears to have achieved its full-blown status only about a dozen years or so ago, just about the time we started spending our two-week vacation in the beach house of our poet friend Grace Gibson. Photos taken when she built the house, in 1983, show few buildings in much of the surrounding space that today is filled with "summer cottages."

With much of it built on a barrier island at the southern end of the North Carolina coast, the town so far has not acceded to construction of a large, high-arch concrete bridge to link it with the mainland. Instead, for car traffic it continues to rely on a narrow, rusted, creaky drawbridge spanning the Intracoastal Waterway. This allows it to retain more of the air of a littoral village, which is lacking in the adjacent beach town to the east, Ocean Isle.

I said a "barrier island," but what today appears to be an island may not have been one before the Intracoastal Waterway was built, as it was contiguous to the continent with a marshland in between. What gives it the appearance of independence is the waterway, plus a simple set of canals built to give summerhouse owners as much access to the water as possible.

Barrier island or not, the nearly 5-km-long dune is fully built up, overbuilt even, although the western end of it, along with Bird Island further west, is left uninhabited. And the two weeks at Sunset Beach are the annual reminder that I am an armchair nature lover. There are birds we don't have in Manhattan, even though among the parks of the major cities of the world Central Park is reputed to attract the greatest variety of bird species.

Oceanside you see brown pelicans plunging into the sea, individually or by twos and threes. Occasionally an armada of these stately birds moves over the whole length of the dune, flapping and gliding, flapping and gliding. The royal terns, ever uxorious and, at this time of year, usually accompanied by one or two fledglings, fly in and out of the shore, short parental yodeling interwoven with spoiled kids' pesky mewing. Piping plovers totter about on the beach. Occasionally, a couple of spotted sandpipers -- or are they solitary sandpipers? -- fly up and away.

In and around the marshlands, you see the great blue heron, green heron, belted kingfisher, American egret, snowy egret, oyster catcher, osprey, black skimmer, short-billed dowitcher, ruddy turnstone, white ibis and the wood ibis. Of this last I think I saw a single specimen gliding above me while kayaking. And while kayaking, I once saw an osprey swoop down to the edge of the marsh, grab a sizable fish and fly away. At such times one simply wonders what creatures the shallow canal waters may be hiding.

Another time I spotted a huddle of bizarre-looking birds on the shore of the Intracoastal Waterway: small naked heads atop sumptuous black robes. Sensing my approach, they floated up and away. Later I learned they were black vultures.

Lying awake in bed before dawn, I sometimes find myself looking forward to the single strangled squawk of a great blue heron flying by, perhaps surfeited after nightlong foraging. Gibson's house, named Saving Grace, stands near where the main canal and one of its four subsidiaries intersect. (I have borrowed the phrase "strangled squawk" from Peter Matthiessen's report on his explorations of cranes worldwide, "The Birds of Heaven." Early on in the book, the great environmentalist observes: "crane voices with their wild, rolling r are far more musical than the strangled squawks of storks and herons.")

Still, ensconced in my friend's three-story beach house and fully benefiting from the comforts of modern American life I worry.

In recent years, the passage of pelicans seems to have grown infrequent, the numbers of shorebirds foraging in the salt marsh too small. Where is the flock of white ibises that was there two or three years ago? What happened, for that matter, to the vast flocks of starlings that at times covered half the evening sky as they flew on and on toward the darkening east? The last flock I saw was puny in comparison.

With the sea gulls in and around New York City, I know their disappearance is a result of the airports' "safety" policy; to prevent any of them from flying into a jet engine, each airport has a sea gull control unit. But do they do anything similar with starlings along the Carolina shores, too? Unlikely. But starlings are regarded as a nuisance and killed by the thousands from time to time.

I worry because I know that if I am right in my worries, I am part of the problem. When my wife and I started vacationing on the Carolina coast 20 years ago, most of Route 17 was a rustic two-lane affair. With the seashore vacationing rapidly growing in popularity, the highway began to be expanded with monstrous earthmovers, crushers and wheel loaders, and before long it turned into a six-lane barrenness.

When we started visiting Saving Grace, much of the space between Route 17 and Sunset Beach was covered with pine trees. Now most of the trees have been replaced by well-manicured golf courses and brand-new commercial buildings. Even when we were new on the beach, the harvesting and eating of oysters was prohibited, contaminated as they were by the runoffs from the fairways. The prohibition remains in effect.

One clear sign of our effect on the shore habitat may be the decline in the schools of minnows. They used to break the surface of the canal constantly and move for a while as circles of ripples, making a sizzling sound. They now so only infrequently. Not just the local fishermen but also we vacationers seem to overfish the canals and the inlets in and around the marshland.

As if to prove my worry, on a single day this summer I saw, in addition to the usual complements of net casters and anglers, two small boats using dragnets and another boat laying a net in the canals, as well as a commercial shrimp boat working in the Intracoastal Waterway. Shrimp boats are normally out in the ocean.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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