Birding all day

A sanderling takes a “bird bath” on Whitney Beach on New Year’s Day. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A sanderling probes the sand for tiny shells on New Year’s Day. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A turkey vulture, looking like burnished metal, dries its wings on Beer Can Island on New Year’s Day. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A great blue heron on Beer Can Island on New Year’s Day. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A snoozing ring-billed gull New Year’s Day on Whitney Beach. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A clear-eyed, unidentified immature gull. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A willet searches for shells in the water off Whitney Beach. CREDIT: Michael Givant


Contributing Columnist

One day this past January, without planning it, I birded the whole day. Because of fog I didn’t get out until 10 a.m. On Whitney Beach there’s a white and black raptor flying under pebbly clouds. What is this mystery bird? It’s an osprey whose color is actually dark chocolate brown and white but looks black in dim light. Flap, flap, flap, glide; the raptor steadily wings its way down the beach. Higher and going in the opposite direction is another osprey. Trains on different tracks. Hey guys, you know each other?

Minutes later an osprey hunting over a green swell gets nothing. Rising higher, flapping fast, the “fish-hawk” comes toward me. Against a now blue and white sky the chocolate brown bird is coldly beautiful and I stare at its winged majesty. For a second I’m fully aware that this is a sentient being and I know nothing about how and what it thinks. But that second is all I have because above it is yet another osprey. Looking at the higher bird framed against the pebbly clouds and blue sky is like looking into eternity. It’s not long before they’re both gone, taking regality and mystery with them.

The sun goes in and the sky becomes one vast cloud. At the beach’s north end there’s the sound of heavy earth moving equipment, the din of waves and 42 assorted gulls and terns. The birds are spread over 50 yards on a dark ridge of wet sand between the deep water and the shallow on the beach. I call it a “whale’s back” because it resembles one just rising from the water. The assembled avian multitude is looking at the incoming waves and waiting. But for what?

A ring-billed gull picks up something on the sand and is immediately chased by several laughing gulls. A laughing gull opens its bill and dark red appears at the corners of its mouth. Another ring-bill with its head tilted upward cries a mournful gull cry. Beach music. Some pale light appears on the horizon. Overhead comes another osprey slowly flapping toward Beer Can Island. Then come more mournful gull cries. The moment is sublime. The low light is eerily clear, momentarily stopping time. The beach rarely looks and feels this lovely. A year later I still see the moment in my mind’s eye.

If the morning had an existential quality, afternoon brings pleasure in small things. I walk over the Longboat Pass Bridge to the Bay Walk at Leffis Key; the sun’s out. In a tidal pool there’s a fallen mangrove with a number of upturned roots, one of which looks too thick and gray to be a root. Looking at it through binoculars the “root” or “stick” is actually a tri-colored heron. The bird, once called the Louisiana heron, moves slightly and then goes back to being hidden in plain sight. Nifty. I’ll remember this spot and the “stick trick” the next time I’m here.

Warblers are tiny mercurial birds that barely offer a look. Some are flitting from low trees to the ground. For precious seconds they are still. Putting binoculars on them, there’s the telltale yellow rump. They look as if they are either trying to mate or are playing. One showing some green-yellow near the base of its tail intrigues me.

Passing an open area of the wooden walkway there are some fiddler crabs scurrying along the ground. The bigger ones are, in places, two-toned red-brown like they are sunburned. Their single disproportionately large claw gives the crabs a sci-fi look.

Going around a bend I see, seemingly suspended in space, a spider. Backing up and putting binoculars on the little guy I can see it’s spinning a web. A small bird crosses the path and flies up to some bare mangrove branches on a hill. Clinging to them, the little acrobat walks right side up and upside down searching for insects. It’s a woodpecker with a bight red cap and white rectangle on its otherwise black back. The bird may be a downy woodpecker, which is uncommon here this time of year. At a tidal lagoon there are dozens and dozens of mangrove roots looking like strands of dried spaghetti left in a colander too long. I just stare at it for a while.

With the sun beginning to set, I’m back on the beach. This time walking in the water to sooth my aching feet. The tide is out but beginning to make inroads on the sand. At the periphery of a large group of gulls and terns are 100 sanderlings. These plump sandpipers are standing on one leg and their turned around heads are tucked into their backs. These are more sanderlings than I’ve ever seen in one place. Four groupings of birds stretch down the beach, also more than I’ve seen here. I speak with a man who, with his wife, sometimes goes to different beaches at sunset. He’s got the right idea. The sun is warm on my face, there’s the gentle din of the waves and the plaintive cry of a ring-billed gull. The moment is rich. I should make coming here a habit.

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