Unlike the sound of that first lawnmower started a little too early on a spring morning by an overly ambitious neighbor, the first-light chatter of birds wakes us soothingly. I call it the dawn chorus.
We start the day with birds but we humans have had a long relationship with them. Our ancestors probably appreciated birds’ alarm calls even more. In some cases, we have evolved mutually beneficial foraging techniques. For example, a group of birds called “the honeyguides” found in Africa and Asia lead humans and several other mammals to bee colonies. We break into the fortress to loot honey and wax, the honeyguide gets its share in leftovers. People once followed circling vultures to lion and hyena kills. In that proud tradition, we once got a fluke, dropped alive by an osprey, off the road to our house.
In Brooklyn my family kept canaries and pigeons. As a teenager I kept and hunted with hawks. As a graduate student and fisherman on Long Island, I developed a relationship with a seabird that returns in early May from its winter home in South America to nest along Northeastern shores, the common tern. That one-sided love affair continues, my perennial summer love in the Hamptons.
The sound of the first terns calling, just yards away from the Amagansett beach where I walk regularly, brings a thrill. I strongly believe that following birds is in our genes. It signals the start of the fishing season, the arrival of that source of omega-3 fatty acids that are so beneficial to our mammalian bodies. These graceful white acrobats with a black cap led me to my career and today they lead me to dinner.
Not far behind the first terns, and soon to be bursting through the surface below their shadows, will be the stripers and bluefish that have lured me here, and on whom I will again attempt to turn the tables.
I first learned to keep an eye on terns while surf-casting, and envied their ability to fly beyond the blue horizon. When I started venturing offshore, following terns over that horizon, I often saw tuna racing like warriors across the surface, sharks lazing along with their fins out, marlin charging through dense schools of small fish, and turtles basking in the sun. Years of following flocks of terns put a PhD on my résumé and a lot of delicious food on my table—everything from bluefish to bluefin tuna.
It says much that regardless of the generation to which we belong, our first glimpse of any natural realm is usually the best view of it we’ll get. When the highway is downhill, everyone enters at the highest point in their journey. Most people assume that the way the world is when they first opened their eyes is the way the world is supposed to look. And so each generation tends to mistake the downslope for the summit, and few realize how far from the heights they actually got on. In restaurants and delis all over the East End—especially the fishing capital, Montauk—hang trophy fish in vintage photographs that no shutter or fisher could capture today.
I drag my kayak into the water and begin paddling toward a small flock of terns that has gathered and is hovering excitedly. One picks off a small fish that has leapt into the air. Another dives just ahead of a deep swirl. My lure splashes in nearby. And five seconds into my first cast of the year, my rod is suddenly laden with life. This summer, like all summers, I will look to the terns to guide me to many a meal.
Carl Safina lives in Amagansett and directs the Blue Ocean Institute.