The saltwater taffy at Pony Tails is trucked in from Ocean City, now. They used to make it at the candy emporium on the island — the armatures moving around hypnotically as they stretched the bands of taffy — but the health department worried about airborne contaminants.
Airborne contaminants. Makes me think of mosquitoes again.
“The big ones are called gallinippers,” Gretchen Knapp explained at the National Park Service visitors center at Little Toms Cove. Knapp is a park ranger, and one morning last week, she had set out a dozen pairs of binoculars for anyone who wanted to scan for birdlife.
The gallinipper mosquito is an inch long and can leave a bruise. Fortunately, it’s slow, slower than its cousins that had attacked us the day before when we were on a bike ride around a paved loop. We’d stopped to admire the scenery in Snow Goose Pool — reeds rippling, red-winged blackbirds winging, the measured steps of egrets and herons in search of frogs and fish — and in so doing had lost our protection.
When you’re moving, the mosquitoes can’t get you. Same when you’re on the beach, where the wind whips them away.
But stand and respire, and it’s like ringing the dinner bell.
“They’re biting me through my shirt!” I screamed.
“They’re biting me through my shorts!” My Lovely Wife screamed.
You might have seen us, lurching back to our bikes, slapping at our bodies with one hand and wildly spraying Off! with the other. I managed to blast myself in my eyeballs, which at least meant I didn’t get bitten on the corneas.
But back to the visitors center. “The snowy egret,” Ranger Knapp said, “has a Type A personality, always running around.”
Little blue herons — there was one sitting on the branch of a dead tree — “look confused,” she explained.
I liked the way she anthropomorphized the birds. It was to help us identify them. For birders, it’s important to be able to recognize a species by more than just what it looks like. Everyone sees colors differently. It’s helpful to familiarize yourself with a bird’s behavior and its call.
All those terns, for example — more than a dozen species of the white and black seabirds. The Caspian tern “sounds like it’s coughing up a hairball,” Knapp said, while the royal tern has a “more melodic” call.
Here was someone I could ask about something that’s always bugged me: What’s up with those little birds you see in the surf? When a wave recedes, they scurry across the wet sand, probing for a meal. Then when the water starts to come back in, they nip away as if afraid to get their feet wet.
Frankly, I don’t like getting my feet wet at the beach, either, but I don’t live there. Isn’t that kind of their job? Why are they such cowards?
“Those are sanderlings,” Knapp said. “They run around like little windup toys on the beach.”
She explained that it isn’t that they don’t like getting their feet wet. It’s that they don’t like getting their feathers wet. Wet feathers mean heavy feathers. Heavy feathers make flying more difficult. And a sanderling — like just about everything else out here — has to worry about being something’s meal while it’s trying to find a meal.
Then Knapp spotted a bird about 500 yards away, flying from right to left.
“There’s an osprey,” she said. “See him moving along the tree line?”
We raised our binoculars. The raptor moved in a nearly straight line, paralleling the water, then landed on an old wooden duck blind that stuck up from the water.
How, I asked Knapp, had she picked out that osprey, which was just a tiny jot of gray and white in a vast background of water and trees and thunderheads that towered in the western sky?
“Practice,” she said. “Twenty-five years of looking.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified little blue herons as tricolored herons.