Shags Come to the Symphony

Shags Come to the Symphony

This post is part of a series contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the previous post here.

By way of introduction, Barnaby writes, “This piece was written some years back during one of Round Top’s many earlier incarnations. It was a memorable event and might well be something Coastal Rivers should or could contemplate repeating in the future ~ perhaps a Concert for the Climate . . . or a Riverine Symphony.”

cormorant in flight

People speak of “the ecology” in a grand way these days. It kind of hurts my ears. What they really mean to say, I think, is “the ecosystem” or perhaps “the interrelatedness of things in the natural environment.” But in our unlearned way, it is much easier to blurt out the word “ecology,” which habit, if nothing else, serves to keep us all ever mindful that the world is a very complicated place. Even if we cannot fully understand the intricate relationships among all things, natural and unnatural, our awareness is what’s important. A oneness with nature is what we are striving for – a state of harmony, of health and vigor. And that is good.

Regarding that word, “unnatural” – I don’t think there is such a thing. We, all beings and all things that exist in the world, all conditions, all events, are part of the same continuum. There are irregularities, to be sure, such as an eclipse (which has merely to do with the relative positions of things) and it certainly can send the birds wheeling and spinning in the resulting confusion. But such occurrences do visit us now and again and always will.

Happily, what we so often refer to as “the fragile ecology” many times proves to be far more resilient and adaptable to “unnatural” events than we concerned citizens might have expected. A good example:

The other night, a bunch of us – families, friends and neighbors – gathered on the hillside at Round Top Center for the Arts overlooking the Damariscotta River for an evening picnic and a performance by the Portland Symphony Orchestra. It turned out to be quite an event. In fact, much of the town and several other towns were there, all dining on cold chicken wings and drumsticks and potato salad and sipping a bouquet of spirits. Everywhere, blankets were spread and people lounged in folding chairs, conversing happily while the summer sun settled pink through the veil of an evening haze over the pines on the riverbank. The incoming tide shimmered and eddied past the ancient and eroding oyster shell heaps, past our picnic, and on to fill the Great Salt Bay beyond.

I was enjoying myself immensely, especially the view of the river and the setting sun, when a very animated Mr. Shimada, the orchestra conductor, tapped on his microphone to get our attention and to tell us what a remarkable sight was our happy throng arrayed all over that hillside from his perspective at the bottom. Strains of music began to fill the air as the musicians started up under their colorful tent. I looked behind me, and indeed there were an awful lot of us on that hill. In fact, it was a sea of townsfolk, all munching on picnic delicacies, all whispering, all scattered about. I wondered how the deer who frequented their riverside meadow might view such an “unnatural” event. How are the meadow voles handling the situation? And what about the earthworms? What a surprise to emerge and find us there with our baskets and blankets spread on the ground.

As I thought about these things, upriver in the Salt Bay a “swim”(as it’s called) of cormorants had at last decided to call it a day and took flight to make their way downriver to roost for the night. They made their usual splashing takeoffs and then climbed high. They had several miles to go and the light was failing fast; by cutting corners and flying overland when necessary, they knew they could make the trip in 15 or 20 minutes. That meant a low pass over Round Top Hill.

double crested cormorant in flightImagine the amazement of that first, fish-breathed shag as his tattered old fuselage cleared the pines along the shore below us that evening. Imagine the jolt to his normal routine on finding himself careening over a thousand or more picnickers where there had never been any before. Imagine the effect on “the ecology,” on that startled cormorant, the whole flight of them, blundering upon the Portland Symphony Orchestra, playing the overture to H.M.S. Pinafore, right in their customary cruise path!

But “the ecology” suffered little that night. That lead shag, being a tough old bird, merely made a quick hitch in his wing beat, dropped a bit of ballast and reset his course 15° downriver.

Barnaby PorterArtist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. Barnaby currently serves on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees. For more about Barnaby, click here.

Photo of double crested cormorant pair in flight courtesy of Russ Whitehurst.