I stopped my mini-van beside the estuary. Across fifty metres of pebbly beach was the Ythan river in NE Scotland, running strongly to my right. It was low tide and on the far bank the brown mudflats glistened in the bright, warm June sun. This day was destined to be special right from the start. After all June 6th 1966 has a ring about it when you write it as 6.6.66. Date patterns similar to this arise only a few times each century.
The purpose for my being there those long years ago was to study Oystercatchers - large black and white wading birds with a long orange bill and vermilion eyes. They gather around their food supplies in winter - mussel beds, cockle beaches, but in summer they nest in dunes, on beach tide lines and in some areas in surrounding fields. These birds get food for their young from the nearby shore or estuary and I had marked several adults at their nests the previous day in the dune system of the Sands of Forvie National Nature Reserve, close to the field station that was my base.
But on 6th June I needed to find where my marked birds from the dunes were feeding on the mudflats and mussel beds of the nearby estuary; so I had marked them with rings on the leg and a wing-tag on each wing, which had a combination of colours so that each bird was marked individually. These were the first birds I had ever marked. I got out my binoculars ands scanned the far shore; several Oystercatchers were feeding there together with some Redshank and a solitary Curlew. Moving my sight-line slowly from left to right I saw nothing; no marked bird at all. I was disappointed, for this was the last place I was to search and it began to look as though none of my marked birds had come to the shore that afternoon. I would just have to repeat the observations tomorrow, when the tide was low once again.
But I decided to give it one final glance before turning for home and that’s when she flew in. With a shrill call the Oystercatcher landed on the mudflat and started feeding immediately. Good enough, but what took my breath away was that this one was marked; of the nine I had tagged this was the first I had seen subsequently. It was a helpful piece of information for it helped to piece together the jigsaw which is the feeding behaviour of a wild bird. But the reason that it took my breath away was this : I was looking for the first time at a wild bird that I knew as an individual. For years I had studied these birds and many others; they were all Snipe, or Gannets, Wrens or whatever. Here was ‘just’ an Oystercatcher, but one that I knew in an intimate way; I had held it 20 hours earlier, measured it, gazed in wonder at its crimson eyes and the beautiful formation of the feathers. I had watched its head remain absolutely static as I moved its body in my hand - altogether a wonderful example of divine engineering. I lowered my binoculars briefly. Yes I could see the bird with my naked eyes across the water, its colour wing-tag combination as distinctive as the date - Orange/Orange/Orange.
I stayed watching O-O-O for an hour till she flew back to the dunes and in doing so I’d begun to meditate. More than knowing O-O-O as separate from the others around, I could now give my bird a name; and in the same way each of us is known and loved and valued and named as a unique individual by God. He marked us even before we were born; our name is carved on his hand. He has followed us and accompanied us every step of our journey; he has held us in his arms and marveled at our features, even the little crinkly bits of our face or personality. For he intentionally made us exactly as we are; he designed our bodies, our minds and spirits to serve him in ways impossible for anyone else. We are made unique, reflecting the creativity of God in all its perfection. And above all these, God has a love for us in ways far beyond our understanding.
O-O-O will have died by now, but to me she’s immortal - just as we, as unique God-created individuals, are immortal in the vastness of eternity. We are held, named, loved, made whole - and marked out for ever as belonging to him.
Paul Heppleston lives in Derbyshire, England and now leads Christian