Skeletons: sea-sorted

Gently, the waves carry and deposit their offerings, seeking suitable places to pile them: fine black grains of coal in the hollows between ripples; grey-white tangles of hornwrack, heaped beside a log, the minute animals dead within their skeletal cells; a small patch of knitted-together mussel-spat, like black beads on the necklace of their byssal threads. Here there is a concentration of broken shells of Common Whelks; here a patch of the white heart-shaped skeletons of the sea-urchin Echinocardium, now devoid of their spines – urchins that must have been nibbled out of their burrows by the probing tide and carried, so very gently, to the intertidal shore. The tideline is a tangle of drying wrack, mermaids’ purses and whelk eggs, but the tiny contours of the shore and the minute changes in the currents of water and wind create special resting-places where the flotsam is sorted and categorised by the waves, and filed for the next few hours.

Not far away, the retreating water laps a jumbled collection of twiggy whiteness.

Skeleton, sleeping

It is a bird, the glistening, clean, skeleton of a bird, laid gently to rest on the sand of the mid-shore. Small and delicate, it is almost intact, skull still attached at the neck; curving ribs; legs slightly bent, one digit still clawed.

From the size of its body and shape of its beak, it could be a ring-plover, a bird common on the Solway shore, seen scurrying along the tide’s edge or the shingle, and flocking together with its peers at high tide. A female, anxious about her nest or young, may feign injury, dragging a wing to lure us or a predator away. Small birds, but always busy, full of character and colour and sound.

Ringed plover feigning hurt (My thanks to Peter Robert 2015)

Yet here it lies, still seeming defiant although it is now only the outline of a bird, a three-dimensional scaffold of thin, hollow bones. Without feathers and lacking muscle, the skull – its beak and eye sockets, the cavity that held the ‘bird brain’ – seems disproportionately large in relation to the supporting body. Its wing bones are missing, but this little bird looks as though it might leap up and run for the dunes, snapping its pointed, black-tipped beak in defiance.

Skeleton, translocated

It is a mystery: so many steps of serendipity have brought it here – the bird’s death on a shore; the careful cleaning of its bones by bacteria, small detritivores and water, which nevertheless left cartilage and connective tissues intact; the uplifting of the skeleton by the tide; its passage through the ebb and flow; to be dropped, so gently, almost unbroken, on the sand. To be filed for a few hours in its own special place, before it is uplifted again and finally broken or transported elsewhere.

Such improbability is breath-taking, and I, too, gently lift it and carry it home to another resting-place.

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