Zongxian dropped out of a comfortable thermal, nearly a thousand feet above the ocean, following his ragged formation of twentyone gulls, survivors of a grueling two week journey down the Atlantic seacoast, as they descended to the surf. The lead bird, Qiulian, a female, one year his senior, splashed head first into the light chop of clear blue water, spiraling up seconds later with a small silver fish wriggling in her beak. Lightly skimming the surface, the first wing of gulls behind her overshot the school and coasted low enough to dust the sand before turning back toward the ocean. With daylight disappearing, as the sun slivered between the tall buildings that grew beyond the dunes, they were only a couple of hours north of their winter roost. The joy of the long rest now foremost in their minds. Unfortunately, none of them had eaten for over two days. Nesting would have to wait until hungry gullets were sated.
They had been a flock of twentyfive when the sun was just an orange glow on the horizon the previous morning. Lifting off in the light breeze, Zongxian looked back as three males skittered to the ground within seconds of each other, no strength left to urge their wings further, no breath in their will to continue.
Perhaps they would find food at the hands of some generous beachgoer. Perhaps a live fish would wash ashore within reach of their last waddling steps. Zongxian gave it little thought, turning his gaze south, not even sure of their names. There was nothing he could do that wouldn't jeopardize his own survival.
The weather in New Jersey had fooled them, summer stayed late, autumn even later. When winter exploded in the middle of the night, sparked by a frigid Canadian clipper, the birds awoke freezing and unprepared for their annual journey south. Not that there was luggage to pack, but several days of hearty feeding was necessary to marshal the young, the firsttimers, for the rigors of constant flight. A mother and four of her seven chicks perished the afternoon they embarked.
As fearful as the weather could be, gullhungry predators awaited them with each mile they flew closer to temperate climates. A hawk took a female Zongxian had mated with recently, as the brood stirred to life
on the morning of their eighth day. He and several of the other males chased the aggressor for over a mile
inland before turning back to the coast. While they were gone, a second hawk had killed a young male, who tried to protect the flock on his own.
This was Zongxian's sixth migration to South Florida, the number of fellow travelers he'd seen lose the battle with Mother Nature on these journeys was twenty times that.
Lowering his head to scan the water for prey, Zongxian felt the muscles in his neck tighten and pinch with the effort; his wings just wouldn't give the air a full measure when they beat. Shuddering in a sudden crosswind, he wondered to himself, "How many more times will I survive this trip?"
The outgoing tide had exposed the flat runway of a sandbar several yards offshore. Trapped between it and the beach, thousands of small bait fish became dinner for the hungry flock. Ever vigilant as to the shroud of twilight slowly draping itself over her charges, Qiulian took to the sky, shouting at the feasting gulls to follow. Zongxian slid in next to her, wingtips barely touching, as they cleared a line of feathery green Silk Pines leaning away from the constant onshore breeze. The trees formed an anguished border, tilted to the west as though they were trying to lift their roots and run away from the ocean's persistent roar. For Zongxian, they were a landmark, a point on a map that would never be printed, yet clear as a billboard in his mind. In a single swoop, he arced below and in front of her, taking the lead as he had done for years, guiding the birds over the last few miles.
He had led the flight once, four years ago, from the swamps east of Savannah all the way to their rooftop perch in Ft. Lauderdale. A storm that grounded them in the false security of thick marsh weeds had taken Kaiping, a lead female who'd birthed over a dozen of his offspring. She'd tried to guide the flock into a wooded patch at the edge of the swamp and was struck by a falling tree limb in the wind.
Zongxian had flown midphalanx from the Jersey shore and simply took over when he realized she was crippled and unable to fly. Halfway down the Florida seaboard, the gulls were ambushed by a large flock of vultures when Zongxian selected a hammock that he thought was unoccupied for their night's rest.
Nine of their troupe died that night; only eleven lived to see the sun come up from their rooftop on the beach a fortnight later. Zongxian vowed to bring up the rear from that day forward, but was always granted the honor of leading the birds for the last few hours of the trip.
The route turned due south again, as Zongxian spotted the water tower painted with palm trees to his west. A small group of Canadian geese had claimed its struts in decades past and over time had grown into a winter community of more than one hundred squawking birds that he could hear snippets of conversation from, even several miles away. With the lights of the airport in the distance, Zongxian again banked hard, this time toward the east, searching the horizon for the four blinking lights that marked their building.
Unbeknownst to the gulls, the building a condominium that had been vacant for several years, save for rats, snakes, and several species of spiders that had decorated all of the empty dwellings with their filigree had become an eyesore for the surrounding neighborhood. Amidst a fanfare of sirens, horns, and whistles, a demolition crew had razed the building several months ago in a shudder and thud of dynamite. All of the landmarks Zongxian needed were there to lead him in, but their final destination had vanished.
The warning lights that had marked the corners of the missing building weren't as red as the others, in fact, owing to the visual acuity of the gull's retina, each of the thousands of blinking red lights they passed on the journey south had a unique tint. The ones Zongxian was looking for were a bit more to the orange side of the rainbow and one of them, closest to the ocean, blinked much slower than the other three, a cadence he knew as well as his own heartbeat.
Passing the last landmark, the neon arches of one of their favorite dining spots, Zongxian climbed a hundred feet above and ahead of the rest of the flock and began a slow circle to the north thinking that as tired as he was, maybe he'd been off target. There was another pair of golden arches a mile north of the one he'd just passed, Zongxian dove out of the sky toward them, but slowed as he saw the color was more white than the solid yellow now behind him. The flock followed him around to the west and the familiar water tower, turning back into their route and soaring once again toward the coast. But the building was gone.
Zongxian made a slow sweeping arc around the area, coming lower with each turn, and finally drifted
down to the deserted beach. Qiulian landed next to him and together they stared at the empty hole where
there should have been a large coralcolored building with white balconies. The other gulls, squawking and
bleating out complaints, gathered around the two leaders, anxiously wondering why they weren't high up
in the safety of their roost.
Nodding once to Qiulian, Zongxian stepped back from the assemblage and cawed several times, loud
enough to bring silence. He walked around them, stopping between the flock and the missing building
and cawed again, but just once, taking to the air as the sound disappeared into the crash of a wave.
His leadership had again been questioned, tested, and it had failed. It was now his responsibility to
save the flock and regain his standing. Zongxian took a deep breath and for the first time in his life,
questioned whether he was still capable of such a task.
There was another colony of gulls on the roof of a tall building several blocks south, a group that
they shared mates with over the years. Zongxian figured if their number was small enough, perhaps the two
flocks could share the roost. This plan showed little promise though, as their colony, from the Canadian
Maritimes, had left a month earlier than normal on a hunch by one of their elders that the cold would
come unexpectedly. What little space they had left had been filled by an assortment of Sandpipers, a noisy
family of Orioles, and a squirrel, who chased Zongxian around the roof until he leapt for the sky.
He continued south, coming in low over several buildings to check for occupancy, his luck and fortitude running dry. The last rays of sunlight had been smothered by clouds in the west an hour ago and Zongxian was now navigating by moonlight. He knew the gulls would be fine sleeping on the beach, not the most comfortable arrangement and certainly not adequate quarters for the entire winter, but they'd done it before. However, having accepted the position of authority, wrestling it from Qiulian with a single word, Zongxian would not rest until he'd located satisfactory lodging for the entire clan.
Lost and disoriented, Zongxian glided to a landing at the back of a line of stores. He waddled to an overturned trashcan and picked through the debris, finding several pieces of stale bread and a halfeaten dinner roll. A light sprinkle of rain began falling and he took cover under the lid of an open dumpster until it passed. With a break in the clouds allowing the moonshine to spray across the sky, Zongxian scurried into the air, figuring if nothing else, he'd be able to find his way back to the flock.
The wind had blown him much further in from the coast then he first suspected; the rooftops here considerably lower in elevation than the skyscrapers on the beach. Most were surrounded by palms and thirtyfoot tall Ficus trees, those already home to indigenous birds or too small to accommodate the remaining twentytwo gulls in his flock. Passing a mosaic of orange and pink roofs, a cluster of large buildings loomed in the distance. The tallest of the buildings, an ominous structure of mirrored glass, had several large antenna masts along with a small water tank. With an ample supply of twigs and dead palm fronds for nests, Zongxian saw it as an acceptable substitute for the missing building on the beach.
What he didn't see was a family of owls living in the cluster of palms closest to the building. To an owl, a seagull is as popular a snack as a baitfish is to a gull. Even though a gull can outmaneuver and, for long distances, outpace an owl, if the hooters get the upper claw it becomes a death grip that no gull will ever escape.
Zongxian landed on the roof less than twenty feet from the alpha male of the brood.
If the cloud cover had thickened, the owl, even with its natural gift of night vision, might have missed Zongxian, as he was only on the roof for a few seconds before a door opened and someone came out from the fire exit. But at the moment the door squeaked open, the moon broke through the clouds, and the gull's white body became a glowing lump of food in the owl's eyes.
The owl glided out of the palm with less noise than a feather falling on a puddle, its talons opened wide as it swooped toward Zongxian. It would have been an easy kill if the man on the roof hadn't shouted in amazement at the size of the huge bird. Zongxian had no idea what the man was saying, but the sudden motion with his arms, as though he was trying to fly, was enough to guide the gull's attention toward the owl's sixfoot wings less than a yard away.
Zongxian folded his wings in close and dove to right just as the owl let out a death screech that frightened the man on the roof back inside. One of its claws caught a single feather on Zongxian's back, yanking it free and causing the gull to tumble to one side in pain. The owl's steep dive took it past its intended target, far enough that Zongxian was able to spin clear of the attack and flap hard into the night sky.
But the owl recovered just as quickly, swinging a wide semicircle around the antenna array, and coming up from behind the gull at close to an equal pace.
Had Zongxian not been as tired as he was, he would have been able to accelerate away from the predator and fly for the safety of the beach and reinforcements from the flock. One owl and one gull is a fair fight if your money is on the owl; one owl against six gulls and the odds run in favor of the masses. However, his burst of speed was shortlived, as Zongxian called on muscles that were long overdue for a respite. His only hope was to get a lucky shot at the owl's thick neck, a peck in the right spot and the pain might be enough to dissuade the owl from continuing the fray.
Taking advantage of his smaller size, Zongxian flew headlong into the nearest Ficus tree, clattering through the leaves and thin branches at the crown. He hurtled out the other side and flew around the corner of the building. But this was the owl's territory and every square foot of it was air and turf it knew as clearly at night as it did during the day. It saw the gull go into the tree, followed it by the flutter of leaves, and was waiting for Zongxian when he rounded the building.
The owl's claw caught Zongxian in the left side, tearing a deep gash through feathers and skin; a streak of crimson stained the gull's white body, tiny drops of blood trailing behind it as it fell. Triumphantly, the owl spread its wings and dove after the gull, the taste of the kill driving its passion. Even as Zongxian gathered his wits and fought against the pain, the owl closed the distance between them with frightening speed.
The sudden flash of lights blazing on in a corner office startled both birds, blinding the owl more than the gull. Zongxian dropped low to the ground, his belly nearly scraping the gravel parking lot, as the owl roared past him and sideswiped the trunk of a palm. Dazed, the owl managed to fly up to its nest while Zongxian raced hundreds of feet above it into the moonlit void of the South Florida night. He circled the owl's aerie once, mustering all the bravado he could, and screamed out a warning to the owl and his family.
He'd be back in the morning, in the daylight, and he wouldn't be alone. Twentytwo birds had traveled
south for the winter seeking warmth and shelter from the cold. Twentytwo birds were coming to live on top
of this building and no curvedbeak hooter was going to chase them away. Zongxian might never make this
journey again, but others would, and they would know that Zongxian had led the way.