Birding on Anna Maria Island
This is the second of a three-part series about birding on Longboat Key and nearby Anna Maria Island.
For novice birders or more experienced ones not familiar with birding spots in and around Longboat Key, the Coquina Baywalk at Leffis Key on Anna Maria Island is a great place for birding. Here one can see some of the Gulf Coast’s fish-eaters and more.
If one walks to Anna Maria Island, the Longboat Pass Bridge at the North End of Longboat Key offers a unique birding view. On the Sarasota Bay side of the bridge, there is a dock on which cormorants sun themselves. This black diving bird with a hook-tipped, yellow/orange bill can sometimes be seen swimming and diving in the water below the bridge. Watch this bird gracefully bend and dive under in one motion. It may come up with a large silver fish in its bill that it struggles to position before swallowing it whole. From the bridge, after a fog had cleared, I watched a cormorant struggle with a fish that I thought was too big. Momentarily taking my eyes off the bird, I looked in near disbelief as a slow moving bulge in its throat proved me wrong.
Different birds fly near or close to the bridge including brown pelicans, laughing gulls and black skimmers, the latter going to and from nearby Jewfish Island. The gray form of a bottle-nosed dolphin breaking the water may on occasion be seen as well.
Reaching the Anna Maria side of the bridge, you may see a great egret fly onto the sands below. From the bridge the bird seems to swoop in with its white wingtips splayed, turning slightly as it lands on the sand. If it has trailing breeding plumes, this large egret can look regal. Quickly it will start to patrol the green water’s edge looking for fish. The egret may go near fishermen hoping for throw-a-ways, as do some larger great blue herons that patiently wait for a meal to be thrown their way. Check out the colors of the great blue heron. You’ll find gray, black, white and some rust—but no blue.
From the bridge there is a sandy road that runs about two-thirds of a mile. About one-third of a mile north of the bridge on the path is the entrance to Coquina Baywalk at Leffis Key. Either before you go in or after, walk the rest of the path. Along it I’ve sometimes seen a belted kingfisher in a tree. This bird is a chunky fish-eater with a long thick bill and a tufted crest on a head that looks too large for its body, which tapers to a narrow tail. The bird is a dark blue gray that looks black in shadow or bright sun. The female has a rust band on a whitish breast. They can perch on a branch or a piling and suddenly fly off with wings moving like twin airplane propellers. This bird is my wife’s favorite, and I like to give her the details of a sighting.
As you walk along the path look past the mangroves and the bushes at the recessed tidal water. Along the path, turkey vultures can be found sometimes flying fairly low. This often taken-for-granted bird is a strong, fast flier, and its black wings have a pewter-colored pattern that starts at the sides of the body and runs to the tails’ tips. In the shade perched on a tree their black bodies appear very dark brown, and the turkey vulture’s small, knobby, red head gives it a slightly comic look.
Coquina Baywalk at Leffis Key is more than 30 acres and covers less than a mile of trails and boardwalk that skirt the bay, mangroves and trees. Last winter, at a tidal pool, several times I saw an immature yellow-crowned night heron. In this phase the heron is a nondescript brown with lots of speckled yellow/green lines. In its mature phase this bird is a suede, smooth gray with a yellowish crown and cheek with black on the side of its head and neck. It’s stunning.
Other wading birds here also include the aforementioned great blues and great egrets. One morning I watched an immature little blue heron, which are oddly white in this phase with pale greenish legs and grayish bill. It walked the edge a different tidal pond, going by the mangroves probably in search of insects. As it went I could see the beginnings of a dark color here and there, suggesting the blue into which it will morph.
The walk itself is very pleasant, as the boardwalk goes out to the bay in several places and you never know what you’ll see there. Once and only once I had a quick look at our rarest heron, the reddish egret. Looking at the mangroves and their reflections in shaded water is a stop-and-contemplate experience, as I’m intrigued by the reflections of the mangrove leaves in the water and the silence that surrounds them.
There are also some smaller songbirds that fly quickly among the bushes here, including the red northern cardinal. There are also some mourning doves whose white tail edges flash as they land.
By the bushes at the walk’s entrance I once had a fairly long, clear view of a tiny bird seen on LBK, the blue-gray gnatcatcher. This 4.5-inch tiny bird is blue-gray with dirty white breast and belly and bright white eye-ring. It moves very fast, barely stopping. In the scant seconds in which it stops, the bird’s black-and-white-edged tail that is often raised is swished around like the knife of a sushi chef. Getting a good look at this bird is a challenge.
The walk isn’t complete without going up one or both of two small hills, both close together, which offer a panoramic view of the bay, trees and mangroves. My eye always falls on the Longboat Pass Bridge, because less than three miles south from where it ends on Longboat Key is Durante Park, another birding hot spot.
Part III will look at the birds that can be seen in Durante Park.