Country diary: an immense space studded with razor shells

The Guardian-3 months before

The same pattern was manifest not only in the sand ribs that continued across these vast flats, it was there also at the tide edge, where a broad curve of foam, which was turned to tin by the dazzling light, was smeared inexorably eastwards in the breeze and the froth was itself banded into the same highly transient design.

It occurred to me that this one engrained sea shape – fashioned by the unending rhythm of the waves – is a perpetual background to the lives of the waders feeding there. They were sanderlings: dumpy, 100g white balls of ceaseless sea-like energy. The author...Peter Matthiessen memorably named them “wind birds” for their wandering lives. He also called them “tireless toy birds” in honour of that hilarious, speeded-up trotting motion of their short black legs, with which each sanderling skirts the edge of the next incoming wave.

There is a curious paradox at work in the sameness of the sanderlings’ environment. They may dwell within this singular tidal pattern all their lives, but it is a landscape that winds around the margins of land everywhere on Earth. Sanderlings that breed in northernmost Greenland can winter in Namibia. Those that nest at the rim of terra firma in Arctic Canada follow this intertidal margin all the way to Tierra del Fuego.

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