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Bay Watch

Sun Reporter

I've just realized it: I am a Type Bay personality.

For half a century, I was under the impression I was Type Beach.

Since childhood, my idea of a real vacation was going to the shore; the closer to the ocean the better.

A mile from the beach? It might as well be 100. I wanted oceanfront, if at all possible -- the kind of place where I could open a window at night and let the breeze cool my sunburn as the surf softly drummed me to sleep before another day of rough and tumble shoreplay.

Then I met the bay.

And, with help from an egret, I had an epiphany.

First, I realized there are beach people and bay people in this world -- that the two distinct settings (though along Maryland and Delaware beaches they are sometimes as little as two or three blocks apart) attract their own distinct personality types.

Then I realized that I -- who always considered the beach my domain, who love few things more than playing in the crashing surf, who have always viewed the backside of a barrier island as sort of a drainpool, a place for the overflow, where all the bugs and bad smells hang out -- am actually the latter.

I shall hide it no longer, not from others, not from myself:

I'm a bay man.

I still treasure a day at the beach -- surf-fishing, sculpting in the sand, riding the waves, strolling the boardwalk and napping until my skin turns red. But when it comes to where I want to hang my new, boardwalk-bought, floppy blue hat, it's the bay.

In a word, it's the peacefulness. There's something deeply soothing about watching the golden tips of marsh grass gently swaying against the steel blue backdrop of the bay. Even when the water is choppy, the winds fierce or the skies cloudy, the peacefulness is still there, getting inside you, zeroing in on the trouble spots in your soul and gently rinsing your worries away.

Bayside, or at least in my own little rented piece of it -- on sleepy Indian River Inlet, a few miles north of Bethany Beach, Del. -- there are no blaring car horns or loud radios, no preening teen girls or rowdy frat boys. It's calm, quiet.

Here, I don't step in wads of somebody else's chewed gum, am not accosted by airplane-pulled banners enticing me to an all-you-can-eat buffet, and am not forced to listen to oldies music that should have been allowed to die long ago. All I hear is quiet, and that's the way -- unh-huh, unh-huh -- I like it.

I know what you're thinking: "He's just getting old."

Granted, in some cases, age might be a factor in determining one's preference for beach or bay. But, clearly, it's not the main one for me.

The age factor True, I have worked on two jigsaw puzzles since being here. I've taken up painting. And I do enjoy that rocking chair over in the corner. But partaking in those activities doesn't make me old anymore than the inordinate amount of time I have spent on the screen porch gazing at birds, sometimes through binoculars, makes me a birdwatcher. Right?

In any event, let me tell you about the egret.

They're the long-legged, snowy white ones with the long necks -- not to be confused with the great blue heron, who, in addition to having a name that is good for his self-esteem, is slightly larger and has a more prehistoric look.

They, so far, are the only bay birds I can identify. The rest I put under the general category of "gulls." Perhaps, as summer progresses and I become more attuned to the bay, I will learn to tell the difference between plover and petrel, loon and grebe, between the "common tern" and the "least tern," neither of which probably has much self-esteem at all. (There is no such things as a "good tern," though we all know what one of those, if it existed, would deserve.)

Anyway, all these birds hang out together in the marshy area that is but a clamshell's fling from my porch. The gull types squawk up a storm. The heron emits a demonic cackle when he gets upset. The egret, as far as I can tell, is a quiet type.

Not long after I arrived, I spotted one -- his whiteness contrasted against the swaying green grasses as he stood ankle deep in the shallow waters. He was still as a statue, his long neck arched into a backward question mark. I had 20 things I needed to do, but I sat down to watch.

He would stand still for 15 minutes or more, gazing into the water, maintaining his focus despite the shrill cackling of dozens of gulls that swarmed about. Then, lightning quick, he would plunge his head into the water, spearing a fish or crustacean every time, and gulping it down in one smooth movement.

Again and again, for close to two hours, he repeated the routine, slowly wading across the stream, picking his spot, and waiting for 20 minutes or more to spear his next treat.

Pure patience I marveled at his patience; then I marveled at mine. I had watched the bird for two hours. I didn't feel guilty about it at all. It wasn't a waste of time -- doing nothing but watching that mostly motionless bird in the bay. It was an optimum use of it.

This is what the bay does to you: It tells you to relax, to take your time, to ponder things if you want, or do absolutely nothing at all -- that all those incredibly delicate and crucial things you're juggling will still be there, unbroken, after you look at the bird.

This is the difference between the beach and the bay, and the folks drawn to them. The beach is Type A; the bay is Type B. See?

Of course, there are exceptions. There are remote and peaceful stretches of beach, and rowdy, jet-ski clogged hunks of bay. And maybe, as development continues, the bay will become as clut-

tered with condos and crowds as some portions of beach are, and in so doing lose its appeal. For now, though, as a rule, it is the better place to commune with nature or collect one's thoughts.

The beach is in your face and packed with people, many of whom, with gull-like impatience, probably honked their horns at the slightest provocation on their way here.

The bay softly sneaks up on you, egret-like, and its denizens are in no real hurry to do anything.

The beach is velour shorts with suggestive words printed on the rump; the bay is cut-off blue jeans. The beach is flimsy flip- flops and revealing bikini tops; the bay is comfortable old sneakers and the T-shirt you painted your house in 12 years ago.

The beach is brash, unpredictable and pounds relentlessly; the bay lilts and meanders, rising and falling as quietly and subtly as that egret wades through the water, as if in slow motion.

The beach is seagulls. The bay is egrets.

You won't find egrets whiningly scavenging the boardwalk for discarded french fries. Perhaps they simply aren't aware of the opportunity, but I like to think, for them, it's a matter of principal -- that their sense of quiet dignity insists they stay where there's still a tiny patch of nature left, and forbids them to hang out among the crowds, concrete and condos, begging for a freebie.

Quiet dignity. That's the egret. That's the bay. And I hope some day, when I get old -- many, many years from now -- that will be me.

john.woestendiek@baltsun.comFor previous installments in the series and to view a photo gallery, go to baltimoresun.com/shorestories.

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