I like thinking about the twisting tern.
Its black cap tipped, orange feet tucked, white wings tilted—like a tumbling Astaire, dancing on air. It appeared on a cold spring morning over a salty marsh with a colony of its clan, pirouetting and plummeting from sky to sea.
This little one, in particular, caught the edge of my eye.
Its head swung back, its wing curled over, its body twirled in a fleeting moment of grace that still makes me smile. This is what joy looks like.
And that’s the thing about the woods and trails of Nova Scotia: so many little pockets of joy, in so many places big and small.
This one appeared over the Cole Harbour Salt Marsh Trail, my favourite spot close to home.
I can testify to the thrill of climbing Cape Split, a Kings County cliff of more majestic view. Or listening to coyotes call from the canyons of the Cabot Trail. Walking the emerald fairyland to Ban Falls. Or lying on the cushioned underbrush of Gaff Point, as South Shore waves wash the beach below.
But something about the marsh—more open, more urban—keeps calling, as life’s own choreography of joy or sickness or loss unwinds. Somehow this place of azure whirlpools and kaleidoscopic skies, tall grass, wild roses, and rock, eases the ebb and flow.
The 6.5-kilometre path along an old abandoned railway is where fresh and salt-water meet, mingle, wash in, wash out over swathes of rippled sand. Terns and eagles, geese and herons, cormorants and willets, seagulls and sandpipers weave their own intricate ballet.
I can’t count the times they’ve unravelled a mental knot or lifted a down day. Or just made me stop, look, and listen in awe.
Like the summer I noticed tiny flutterings and wisps of wings, then spent hours spellbound by barn swallows feeding their babies on the rock piles edging the water: their tiny mouths agape, their egg-sized bodies quivering as their mothers swooped in with insect feasts.
Or the winter I walked the icy landscape, looked up and saw a juvenile bald eagle looking down, still and staring from an evergreen tree.
Or the day in the fog and the mist, when other eagles and Great Blue Herons topped other branches and became haunting silhouettes in the silence.
I’ve watched the herons catching flatfish too. I’ve seen them gliding like gangly Baryshnikovs across an autumn sky. And hiding in deep, rusty grass, camouflaging themselves in calico.
When I’m lucky, they rise up in riots of colour and raptor-like wings, letting out a symphony of screams that echo across the marsh like cries from prehistoric times.
Piping plovers, punk-haired mergansers, and Canada Geese also come calling. A Pileated Woodpecker drums along the tinder. Ever-elusive adult bald eagles keep their distance and their mystery.
I once lost a shoe trying to get a close up view, a mucky mistake worth the try.
I’ve watched them chasing newly arrived osprey, returning each spring to circle the whirlpools and dive for fish. Sometimes they just sit and stare from afar, as fat, friendlier seagulls crunch on crabs. As salt air lingers on lips. And water whirls on, under wooden bridges, past rocky outcrops and dense forest just eight kilometres from home. It’s a quick drive down Cole Harbour Road, a right turn onto Bissett and just a few minutes more to this windswept oasis on the edge of suburbia.
Every now and then I’ll meet a fellow traveller as transfixed as me by what we see. And longing too for some kind of connection to this other world.
Not long ago, I rounded a corner of the marsh, looking again for the terns. They’d gone away. But I spotted another familiar face, white cap and yellow beak, across the water. A couple I’d seen before stopped to look at the bald eagle too.
The woman, Dianne van der Basch, told me she’d once watched four of them sitting together in the middle of the marsh. She knows someone who’s photographed many of them, up close.
We stopped for a moment and stared.
Then she raised her arm in the air and laughed as the eagle lifted its wings and flew.
“I always wave,” she said. “So he knows it’s me.”