On one of those gorgeous October days we had this fall I took a walk along the shores of Little Pleasant Bay in South Orleans with my friend Ric. The air was calm, the light incandescent with hidden meaning.
Little Pleasant Bay is one of the most protected of the Cape’s estuaries – or was, until the ocean began poking holes in its long, thin barrier beach to the east. Over the past four decades, ocean storms and rising sea levels have regularly breached this Outer Beach, allowing storm surges to reach the bay’s inner shoreline. What were once undisturbed bluffs and salt ponds now showed the ravages of accelerating erosion, ripping sizeable trees from its banks, threatening houses whose owners had felt secure and stable, and changing the nature of its marine community.
As we walked south along its shore, we witnessed a phenomenon I had never seen before – at least not here in Little Pleasant Bay. A couple of hundred yards offshore, right in the middle of the bay, clouds of dozens, if not hundreds, of small, light-colored birds and larger, dark-colored birds hovered over a large patch of churning, roiling water. The birds hovered there in two levels, the lighter-colored birds above the darker ones... Neither of us had binoculars with us, but I was pretty sure that the smaller birds were terns and the larger ones cormorants, though they made no discernible sounds.
The water below them was constantly exploding. From time to time individuals from both flocks would dip down to the surface. I assumed these were bait fish driven to the surface by schools of larger predator fish, blues or stripers, attacking them from below. The bait fish broke the surface in great numbers in an attempt to escape their marine predators, only to encounter the clouds of avian predators above them. It was a classic case of out of the frying pan and into the fire
Over the years I have seen many of these so-called “feeding frenzies,” – usually in the summer, but never this late in the season and never with two species of birds. The invisible fish erupted over an area several hundred feet wide, constantly moving and shifting due to the unseen forces below. Here there were several different levels of predator and prey in one spot – terns on baitfish, cormorants on bait fish, stripers on bait fish – and who knows, perhaps something larger lurking above or below them.
The feeding spectacle continued as Ric and I walked the beach for at least twenty minutes, It was still going full bore when we left (and who knows how long it had been going on before we arrived?). It always surprises and gladdens me when an unexpected natural phenomenon distracts us from purely human concerns and shakes us into a world we have not made. So fierce necessities create casual, stunning tableaux of energized beauty.
That evening I related our experience to my friend Jim Gilbert, an avid fisherman and a student of local waters. He said that the baitfish were probably “peanut bunkers”, or “baby bunkers,” the local term for young menhaden. I love to hear such local home-grown terms attached to our local wildlife. They are not only colorful and often roughly poetic – but reflect a tactile knowledge of, and even an affection for the creatures on which we, too, prey.