Checking out a birding walk

The great egret in February at Robinson Preserve in Bradenton. Check out the way those breeding plumes trail in the water like a bridal gown. CREDIT: Michael Givant

This group of white ibises feeds on Whitney Beach in February. They probably nest on Beer Can Island. Check out those bills! CREDIT: Michael Givant

Contributing Columnist

It’s Valentine’s Day at Leffis Key on Anna Maria Island. Tomorrow morning I’m taking a birding class from the LBK Education Center to the Bay Walk here. As I walk, two ospreys are above Gulf Drive, one coming from the gulf and the other heading for LBK.

At an overlook at the Bay Walk, a female belted kingfisher perches on a tall bare tree branch. Her head is black with its combs sticking up. What marks her as a female is that on the sides of her black breast band is a rich rust color. I saw this bird here on this tree a week ago. Can I count on my class seeing you then?

Walking the trails there’s the soft sound of a woodpecker at work; a yellow-rumped warbler lands in a tree and a little blue heron is slowly feeding by the mangroves at the far edge of a tidal pond. In a nearby tree there are two mourning doves that fly off using rapid wing beats.

At an overlook on Sarasota Bay there are two red-breasted mergansers, diving ducks that are recognizable by their tufted crests and reddish bills. Whoops, make that three, as one unexpectedly bobs to the surface. I saw two here last week. Can I count on you guys for tomorrow morning?

Atop one of the two viewing spots on the hill there’s what looks like a lone green parrot winging it fast. When the bird lands there’s the telltale flash of white marking it as a white-winged dove. I double back and find the little blue and the belted kingfisher again and hope they are here tomorrow at 9 a.m.

Starting to leave, I look in the first tidal pool where I haven’t seen anything this winter until now. On a branch is a tricolored heron and I stay awhile admiring its wine, gray and yellow body and amber eye. I make a mental note to tell the class to look for the white belly when trying to distinguish it from its cousin the little blue heron. To my astonishment what appears to be dried tidal muck on some mangrove branches is actually a statue-like immature, yellow-crowned night heron! How many times have I walked past and not noticed? The heron, which is the size of an adult, has a body that is nondescript brown with light streaks all over giving it an electric look. The bird has an amber eye with a greenish eyelid. The area around the eyes and chin is yellow-green. It opens and quickly shuts its bill showing a red mouth.

Leaving the walk and turning onto the sandy path I encounter a surreal scene. By a post, coming out of the scrub, one by one, are six black vultures. Chunky birds with gray dotted heads, black bodies and white legs, they each walk out slowly looking around cautiously. The vultures are a contradiction in appearance. They seem comical as if they were half-human, half-penguin. However in the late morning sun, their jet-black color makes them look like six images of Death from Ingmar Bergman’s classic film “The Seventh Seal.” They’ve come for some carrion on the sand path. It’s the carcass of a raccoon whose body has been eviscerated and the flesh stripped from the legs, which are reduced to bare, bloody bone. The teeth and jawbone lie at odd angles.

These birds are aggressive around a kill and occasionally push at one another as they rip the carcass in two unequal pieces with three working the remains of each section. Am I on Anna Maria Island or in the African bush watching vultures tear apart the remains of an impala? Soon the vultures are in two trees, and as they were at the carcass, three to a tree. They aren’t likely to be here tomorrow but I wonder how my class would respond if they had seen this?

The next day brings a low tide and pleasant temperatures. Getting there early I walk through once more as my wife greets the early arrivers and takes attendance. My group gets to see 13 species including a preening osprey that they find without my help. Just a few see kingfishers because these birds fly at the approach of some 20 birders. The group also sees three red-breasted mergansers and has some excellent looks at low flying turkey vultures some of who seem to be having a breakfast meeting in a few bare trees. I point out the pewter design on their under wings, as I did in class. However seeing the design in the flesh causes someone to comment enthusiastically. Music to my ears. Two eagle-eyed birders spot an immature white ibis as well as four white pelicans on Sarasota Bay and a number of perching great egrets dotting trees on the opposite shore like snowflakes. A brown pelican dives into the bay at a seeming 90-degree angle and a cormorant stands drying its wings. We also have some good views of two plumped up mourning doves.

The little blue heron is a no-show as is the tri-colored and the immature yellow-crown night heron. But I’m hardly disappointed, as I’ve never seen so much here before. I’ll chalk it up to a low tide, good timing and perhaps a belated Valentine’s Day gift to the class from the birds.

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