Right time, right place

A royal tern yawns on Whitney Beach. Check out the bird’s tongue. CREDIT Michael Givant


A great blue heron peruses the sea grass off Whitney Beach. CREDIT Michael Givant


Contributing Columnist

Birding is often about being in the right place at the right time. Last winter on Whitney Beach, I had some memorable moments with birds and bottle-nosed dolphins because I was in the right place at the right time.


Whose ‘doo?’
One chilly morning last January the “assembled multitude,” a large group of gulls, terns, skimmers and shorebirds, appeared as a huge white mass in the distance. As I get closer a number of birds have their heads turned to their backs with their bills partly buried in their feathers. For a few curious seconds I’m puzzled. What are they? Are they snoozing or keeping their faces out of the breeze? The little that is showing of their bills doesn’t reveal much. However they all have the same black stylish, spiky feathers at the backs of their heads. It is like looking at a living photograph of a softly feathered, repetitive pattern.

Then the light goes on in my head — it’s the “aha” moment. They all have the same familiar looking “doos” in the back of their heads. They’re royal terns, large at 20-inches with prominent, dagger-like, yellow-orange bills when visible. In winter plumage the crowns of their heads are a dotted gray with a black spiky “doo” in back. They are simultaneously striking and comical looking.

It’s not easy to be stumped about the identity of birds you’ve seen hundreds of times as I have these terns. However it is their “doos” that offer a way of identifying these birds. It’s like discovering something new about a person that you know very well. Months later I can still see the birds, feel puzzled by them and then feel the surprise of recognition. I’m still charmed by the experience, which was made possible by being in the right place at the right moment.


Surreal sight
One March morning at the north end of Whitney Beach at 10:45 a.m., the time and place are exactly right. Coming around the rocks, what I initially think is a brown pelican, is a great blue heron. The bird’s carrying a fish longer than its javelin-like bill. The fish has scales on its back and a forked tail with a black spot showing.

The heron lands on the sand with a vise-like grip on its catch. Struggling fast and hard, the fish’s eye bulges in fright, the tail snaps urgently and the mouth opens in a wide, red “O.” Is it gasping for air? The blue’s yellow eye is ablaze, breeding plumes wave in the breeze and the bird’s short meat-colored tongue shows. Fish and bird are almost eye-to-eye as the fish thrashes for life and its mouth opens even wider. It’s no contest as the heron can stand like this for a long time.

For riveting minutes the fish snaps less and less. But just when I think it’s done, the fish gives one more, then another and another waning snap. It’s slowing down. The bird’s tongue is becoming more prominent.  Gray feathers on the blue’s neck and breast rustle in the breeze.

After four or five minutes, the blue starts to position the fish with the head facing its waiting throat. The end is quick. After the fish disappears there’s an odd bulge in the back of the heron’s neck where it bends, but not in the throat where I’d expect it to be. The heron gets a drink at the water’s edge and flies 40 feet down the beach, probably to hunt more but it shouldn’t be too hungry.

I stand there a while absorbing what I’ve seen. I was lucky to have gotten here when I did and witness the action. Great blues don’t frequently come to the beach and when they get a fish here it is usually a small one.  Right place, right time.


Dolphin display
The sight of bottle-nosed dolphins traveling offshore sometimes creates a thrill and mystery for beachgoers. These mammals, approximately three-feet long at birth, grow to an average of 10 feet. They hunt for small fish in groups or individually by echolocation, the making of sounds and listening for their echo.

One February morning there are at least three bottle-nosed dolphins close to shore putting on a display. A large gray section of one’s back shows as does part of a head and later I can see an eye. Battle scared fins with nicks taken out of them are visible. How did this happen?

Two dolphins rise up and for a brief few seconds I can compare the nicks. Other fins are smooth with no nicks. I can see the fins and the backs of three or is it four dolphins? Are they frolicking or feeding or both? The scene goes on for a while. A dolphin display with this many showing so much, especially the nicked fins, is rare.

A little later walking back at least four dolphins are at it again, perhaps 50 feet from shore. The thrill of seeing them just beyond a second incoming wave makes me want to go into the water and out to them. But this is a momentary Walter Mitty flight of fancy. Being in the right place at the right time can do that to you.

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