Watch out for those cat’s paws

Published 10:37 pm Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Today, let’s talk about cat’s paws.

No, not the cat’s paws with fur and pads and claws. We mean the other kind — wind riffles on the water. They are rare, and to be cherished.

Normally the wind blows fairly steadily and from the same direction, with velocities varying little, perhaps 5 to 10 mph. In Tidewater, our prevailing wind is from the southwest, usually at 10 to 15 mph. When a front goes through, we get northeasterly winds, brisk at first, then subsiding. The wind is briefly easterly, then southeasterly, and then returns to the old southwest at 10 to 15.

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It’s a fairly humdrum pattern: straight-line winds at a moderate speed. BUT —

When a front is coming through….

When a thunderstorm is approaching….

When there’s a downburst….

When there’s an outflow boundary….

Then the winds whip up. They may vary from 5 to 50 mph within a few seconds. They may come from various directions. And when this happens, you get cat’s paws on the water.

Riffles — tiny wavelets by the thousands — result from these gusty winds. They form no set shape. They come from several different directions, seemingly at once, or may come sporadically from the same direction.

They are most striking when the sun glistens on the water and it sparkles. Sunset is best.

They are fascinating on any-sized body of water. They can be observed on the ocean from a hotel balcony, on the Chesapeake Bay from a waterfront restaurant, while crossing any of Tidewater’s myriad river bridges, or on any local pond or lake.

Cat’s paws are to be watched and cherished wherever they appear — a swimming pool, a fish pond, even a bird bath.

People gravitate to water. (Read, or re-read Chapter 1 of Melville’s “Moby Dick.”) The water has its moods. When the sun sparkles on cat’s paws, the water is playing, laughing, enjoying showing off.

Cat’s paws are in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” They’re in Richard Rogers’ “Victory at Sea” score. They’re all through “On Golden Pond.”

Cherish the cat’s paws. Have a glass of wine and just watch them rush, dart, subside, re-form from a new direction, form quick whitecaps, and subside again. Anybody who doesn’t think God is whimsical, playful and a Creator of beauty — well, enough said.

We sit on a deck 30 feet up overlooking our little pond. And on days or evenings when cat’s paws form before a storm, (perhaps once a week), we share a glass of wine and watch them… and watch them… and watch them….

“The people who sit on the sand/All turn and look one way;/They turn their backs on the land,/And stare at the sea all day…/They cannot see out far,/They cannot look in deep./But when was that ever a bar/To any watch they keep?” Robert Frost

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at