A lyrical and factually engrossing account of the lives of terns—dazzling aerial acrobats and ``untiring, restless explorers of our planet.'' Hay (The Immortal Wilderness, 1986; The Undiscovered Country, 1982, etc.), widely and justifiably regarded as one of our finest nature essayists, here offers a small masterwork. In March, he watches the beach near his home for the arrival of his beloved terns. His stage quickly fills with sanderlings, gulls, whales, gales, periwinkles, alewive migrations, azure butterflies, spring peepers, and other seductions of spring. When these spectacular migrants (an Arctic tern flies 24,000 miles a year and nests within a few inches of last year's site) return and begin to court, their nesting, the brooding and care of chicks, and their fledgling flights and entire natural history are described in loving (but never didactic) detail. Hay has a rare gift and, like Thoreau, can lift us from earthbound minutiae to the oceanic. Thinking of the tern's flight from West Africa to his beach, he reflects that these birds ``...are earth's wings, and so outreach me...the dislodged feather I pick up off the beach, with its beautifully strong, light, and intricate construction, still carries an electric bond with the atmosphere.'' Hay's passion for the natural world and its creatures is combined with a cleareyed and urgent view of humanity's wanton predations on the planet, although he never stoops to bombast or ultimatum. And he reminds us that ``terns are inheritors of an ancient past which is inseparable from the present.'' A sublime love letter, to be read slowly, and savored like a lambent day in spring.
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