Scattered across the salt meadow a flock of Glossy Ibis feed in the hard morning light. The brilliance robs the color from their shining feathers until they turn, other-worldly, iridescent, flashing greens and russet browns. Their beaks, too long and strangely curved seem ungainly but they are marvelous instruments, picking insects and small crustacea from concealments in the long spartina, with dexterity, and at a pace. Their eyes, deep and dark and untranslatable look through you, as if they come from another place…
Ibis were once known only in Florida and even then they were not common. But from that narrow base they have moved out relentlessly north and east. It was not an even expansion. Boston had nesting birds long before the Connecticut shore. And it is only over the last seven or eight years their numbers have grown apparent where we are. It is not a front. It might be an invasion. Or perhaps a dispersal, like spies, leaving us to wonder what they know, and what they have to hide.
“He is looking – Quick! Pick the little thingies!’” says an Ibis, as their bills stitch the grasses like sewing machines.
“I am picking, is he looking?” says another.
“He goes, it is safe,” they whisper as I pretend to look the other way.
How much of a stretch to regard the Glossy Ibis as malign? Are they the creature broke from ancient rock who has escaped? Or were they scooped in some diabolical retrieval from Outer Space? Their parts are more mechanical than animate. That bill those eyes those unfurled feet trailing under wings which, when they fly are black against the white of a superheated summer sky; Do they disperse at the speed of light?
Alien. Unfamiliar. Therefore dangerous…
In ancient Egypt the Ibis was a more than minor god. Thoth, curator of writing and of knowledge had an Ibis head. It is Thoth who seeks the lost, the wanderer. It is Thoth who brings the parched land back to greening. Wisest of the gods, his counsel is return and reconciliation. It is he who sets words down, in stone, the record of a once and future life.
Over these three thousand years the message the Ibis brings has no doubt corrupted. Certainly, the circumstance has changed, or maybe not. Thoth like you saw a wetted world tilled to a barren wind-swept plain.
“Avenge! Avenge!” comes the coarse cough of the Glossy Ibis. Is that what Ibises were sent to say? Or perhaps, as in the ancient Kingdom of the Nile, all they carry in their beaks is that sad and knowing smile.
MARK SETH LENDER’s Salt Marsh Diary is a regular feature of “Living on Earth” (nationally syndicated on NPR). His nature photography and writing can be seen at www.SaltMarshDiary.com.