‘Snowbirders’ return to LBK, part I

These two turkey vultures on Beer Can Island last week look like burnish metal drying their wings. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A turkey vulture snacks on dead fish along Whitney Beach last week. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A willet looks for coquina shells off Whitney Beach. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A ruddy turnstone turns over a shell on Whitney Beach for a morsel. See how small the shell is. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A red knot in its winter plumage. CREDIT: Michael Givant


Contributing Columnist

As the plane makes its descent into the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport, a long bridge with a yellow superstructure appears in the gulf waters below. Seemingly it goes on without end. “That’s the Sunshine Skyway Bridge,” I say excitedly to my wife, which is about 45 minutes by car from LBK. After a nine-month absence, we are returning there for the winter and I can’t wait to walk on Whitney Beach.

Early next morning it’s cool and sunny. On the beach there is a lone willet in the water. It’s this winter’s first bird and the dull brown color against the light blue water looks sedately lovely. Toward the north end of the beach a large number of mid-sized sandpipers are in the water. Their white breasts have faint dots marking them as red knots. When these birds are in their summer plumage their breasts and faces are a rust color. One digs up to the base of its bill in wet sand, coming up with a decent sized shell, which it simply swallows. Hungry bird.

There are 16 red knots here and 40 nearby. Throughout the morning they will be massed together, feeding and walking in two large groups. I guesstimate that there are 150 to 200 of these birds. I’m not only surprised to see them, as I don’t see them here often, but this is more than I’ve ever seen in one place. As the knots feed vigorously, their faint reflections in the shallow water are charming. These birds winter in the coastal southern United States to South America. Tampa Bay is a staging area but also hosts wintering red knots. Whether these are migrating or wintering I don’t know, but I’m “wowed” by their presence.

Mixed with the knots, my wife notices a lone bird with red legs and a dark “oxbow” shape on its breast. A closer look shows that the bird still has some rust on its brown back, a residue of summer plumage. This is a ruddy turnstone and as its name suggests, these birds turn over stones, shells, leaves and anything they can to find a morsel. This one picks a shell from the wet sand and goes off with it. I’ve not seen that before. Later we see one pecking at one of the numerous dead fish that line the beach, another first. There’s also a black-bellied plover, which stands erect compared to the other sandpipers and has a short bill. I watch it walk and point out to my wife that its name isn’t applicable in winter when its belly is white as it is now. I’m amazed, as these three birds, the red knots, the turnstones and the black-bellies, aren’t everyday birds on the beach. Welcome back “snowbirders.”

There are 30 sanderlings, plump mid-sized sandpipers with light brown backs and white bellies that zip along in small groups chasing retreating waves. They stop, probe the soaked sand for hard, tiny shells and then chase more waves. One is pecking at a dead fish, again something I’ve not seen before, however protein is protein. Looking around there’s no shortage of eyeless, sand covered dead fish. An immature ring-billed gull is pulling out the pink, wet intestines of one. There are some laughing gulls; familiar beach habitués in their winter plumage, but a few still have the hint of summer red on their otherwise black bills. Two Forster’s terns show their trademark, black “arrowhead” area over their eyes.

There’s a sight that I’ve expected to see a few times this winter but not in the first few minutes on the beach. A royal tern has its body parallel to and its head inches off the sand with its wing joints slightly apart. Its orange bill is incessantly opening and closing. The bird is directly in the face of another royal and seems that the bird is exhibiting supplicating or begging behavior. The other imperiously ignores the “beggar.” This behavior shows no signs of stopping, and we think that the active bird is a juvenile who is crying for food from a parent, who wants it to be fending for itself. Tough love.

At the north end we see a few turkey vultures on the beach also pecking at some dead fish. There are a large number of vultures circling in the sky and a number perched on a nearby roof. I don’t know exactly what’s happening here because turkey vultures have been a rare sight on this beach in the past. This vulture may be too “ugly” for anyone but a mother to love, but I enjoy looking at their small knobby red heads with the ivory-colored bill and the pewter design on their wings. Some 60 “peeps,” mainly red knots and some sanderlings, lift off quickly over the gulf, fly out and turn left. Their wings and bodies alternately show brown then silver as they flash against the sky and water looking like confetti. They quickly return to the beach, and that’s when we notice that the rock barrier that was near the development at the end of the beach is gone and that there’s an open “sandway” to Beer Can Island.

My wife and I both wonder if we can walk out to Beer Can for the first time in several years. In the past we used to walk there almost every day and have missed it terribly. Are we going to be able to walk there? If so what will it be like? What birds will be there? Thinking back to yesterday morning when I saw the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from the air, I never would have dreamed that less than 24 hours later I’d be about to walk to a place I’ve only dreamed about for a few years.

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