Notes from the field, Part II

Four sandwich terns on Whitney Beach — check out those yellow bill tips. CREDIT: Michael Givant


A ring-billed gull taking a break on Whitney Beach. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A ring-billed gull showing its “ring.” CREDIT: Michael Givant


Contributing Columnist

The richness of birding is in the details of what is seen and in the observer’s subjective reaction to it. The passages below, derived from my notes, discuss those experiences on Whitney Beach and part of Anna Maria Island during five days last March.

Wednesday, March 9: In the late afternoon there is a black-bellied plover at the beach’s north end picking, what I believe to be, a too-large shell for its wide-open bill. Why? I get binoculars on it just in time to see a ruddy turnstone go after the plover, which flees holding what suspiciously looks like a very large piece of popcorn. The black-belly drops the popcorn on the wet sand, which softens the piece allowing the bird to eat it.

By the “assembled multitude,” what I call a large group of gulls, terns and shorebirds, a ring-billed gull moves quickly to the side of another and steals a fish out from under its neighbor. The thief then takes to the air with the aggrieved party in pursuit. It’s every bird out here for itself today.

In the light of the lowering sun a glistening carpet of wet sand runs down the beach. A plover, a few ruddy turnstones, some sanderlings and a number of willets are all feeding the water’s edge. The moment is pastoral. Hard shadows fall on the beach, some darkening footprints. A lone bubble floats on the remains of a wave that has fallen onshore. It remains there a long time then bursts, a reminder that the day is almost over. What will tomorrow bring?


Thursday, March 10: It stops raining in early afternoon. Walking over the Longboat Pass Bridge to Anna Maria Island a ring-billed gull with a long fish in its yellow bill, flying for all its worth, is pursued closely by a laughing gull and three others. They flee to LBK where they hang a left toward Sarasota Bay and disappear behind tall trees.

Walking along a sand path by an opening to a waterway, a great blue heron stands not far from me staring straight ahead. I see the yellow ring of its eye; the rust on its gray body and the breeding plumes on its head, which wave in the breeze. It is just looking, ignoring me. Perhaps it knows an admirer when it sees one because at this moment it looks like a work of art, a synthetic rendering of the real bird. But it is a sentient being, and not wishing to make it uncomfortable I move on.

In Sarasota Bay, there are four red-breasted mergansers with long, rust-colored bills and white “collars.” They leap slightly out of the water and dive for about 20 seconds before bobbing to the surface like corks. They then shake their heads side to side sporting tufted heads. This winter visitor to Florida is nicknamed “Sawbill” or “Fish Duck” for the backward facing serrations on the cutting portions of its bill, which are used on small fish it pursues under water.

Walking back over the bridge, directly below, a bottle-nosed dolphin partially breaks the water a few times. As I watch it seems that more of the dolphin is out of the water than one sees from the beach. Or is the top-down view from above more exciting?


Sunday, March 13: There are some royal terns flying high overhead that let out a high pleasant trilling sound that has some rolling notes if one listens closely. It’s beach music and I sit down to listen.


Wednesday, March 16: While herons, egrets and cormorants swallow a fish whole, an immature ring-billed gull on Whitney Beach is demonstrating the “piece by piece” style of eating a fish. The gull holds the spiny fish in its yellow bill, which has a black “ring” at the tip, throws it to the sand and vigorously pecks away. Then it flies off but returns and attacks the fish this time leaving it for the waves.

Fifteen minutes later the ring-bill is back again, pulling and tearing at the fish’s head and mouth, shaking it vigorously side to side, dropping it on the sand, tearing and lifting it in the process. The bird gets a nice sized, red piece of flesh, then drops the fish in the water where a wave takes it. However the gull rescues it. I later find the remains brought in by a wave, the gull having eaten its fill. The process isn’t efficient but it is effective.


Wednesday, March 30: On a windy morning there are 18 ruddy turnstones on Whitney Beach. They show various shades of brown on their bodies. It’s as if an artist was experimenting with color. One of them sits next to a small piece of wood and it’s hard to tell one from the other except for some rust color on the bird’s body and its bill.

Walking back I find a plover that is a mystery to me. The orange on its legs and the dark breast band suggest that it’s a semi-palmated plover and may be migrating north. Nearby are a massive number of birds on the beach including more sandwich terns then I have ever seen before. Some clearly have a rosy hue on their white breasts, which I believe is a chemical signal that the terns are ready to breed.

The tide is coming in driven by a 20 mph wind. A small gully has formed in the sand with water being driven up then coming down. In it is a compact little shell going back to the gulf from where it came. It’s a symbolic reminder that my wife and I are going home in two days. I stay a while enjoying the poignancy of the moment and then walk up the beach, taking some of the imagery and the feeling it engenders within me.

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