New Year’s Day on Whit-Can Beach

A mass of red knots with two ruddy turnstones mixed in. See why is hard to accurately count this mass of moving birds? CREDIT: Michael Givant

A magnificent upturned root system of a fallen tree on Beer Can Island. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A ring-billed gull snacking on the remains of a fish. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A profile of a red-knot in winter plumage. Note the dot pattern on its breast. CREDIT: Michael Givant

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

A sanderling digging for tiny shells. Check out that open bill. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A willet patrols the water for shells. I love this non-descript sandpiper. CREDIT: Michael Givant

Contributing Columnist

It’s New Year’s Day morning as my wife and I walk on Whitney Beach toward Beer Can Island. The blue sky looks vast and enormous, as there are a few long lines of clouds that stretch for miles. They accentuate the horizon’s curve as if they were deliberately drawn by an artist’s hand. I feel like a mere speck on a globe, which is slowly spinning in space. It’s a perspective I get only on the beach.

Out on Beer Can Island we see several willets in flight, flashing their dazzling white wing pattern. One is calling loudly and I can’t locate it. My wife literally turns me around in time to see it go by over the Gulf waters. This is the third day we’ve been out here and the willets have called on at least two of those days, but never as loudly as this one.

Another willet walking briskly in the water stops and faces the beach. The head is light in the bright morning sun as is its breast, which has traces of sandy brown. The lithe bird stands motionless, looking like an unfinished stone statue, and I simply stare at it. If it weren’t for the water I’d look to see if there were stone dust at the bird’s feet.

A snowy egret with black legs and yellow feet is walking along the shallow water by the Longboat Pass Bridge, ignoring the feast of dead fish on the beach. While the front of the bird’s legs are black, the backs are pale green. I want a better view of this elegant egret and move closer but apparently too close for its comfort. The bird nicknamed “golden slippers” begins to fly over the bay. It then turns tightly on a dime, flies several yards and comes down, wings aflutter, and begins walking. Apparently the snowy wants some space, and I keep a comfortable distance.

Beneath the bridge, in the shadow of a piling, are two ruddy turnstones. Their rich summer brown is disappearing under winter white, but their trademark red legs and the small slightly up-curved dark bills are clearly visible. There’s another bird in the water with a lot of white showing on its lower back. It’s vigorously slapping the water using its body and tail. The bird acts like it hasn’t had the opportunity for a bath in a week. After a minute or two it stops. I’m not positive that it’s a ruddy turnstone until the little guy lifts mere inches out of the water dangling its red legs and feet as it joins the other two. Nifty.

Back on Whitney Beach there are about five sanderlings, plump sandpipers that scurry quickly after retreating waves. Their bodies are seemingly immobile as the birds’ little legs move with the speed of sewing machine needles. Their backs are a light brown and breasts and bellies a bright white. They are at the fringe of a mass of red knots, larger sandpipers that feed together in a mass. In their bright summer plumage the red knots’ breasts and heads are rust-colored. Now they are dull brown with a faint pattern of dots on their breasts. As the birds are close together and constantly moving, trying to count is futile and I “guesstimate” that there are 60 to 80. Some of the knots have banded legs, which the smaller sanderlings don’t have. Standing there looking without binoculars at the two separate species side by side I realize that the backs of the red knots are a gray/brown, darker and duller than the lighter, brighter sanderlings. Their breasts too are a duller white than the sanderlings. It’s a nice side-by-side eyeball comparison, and I make a mental note to point it out to my birding class when we come here next month.

At the fringe of a group of gulls and terns is an immature gull whose identity I’m not sure of. The bird is hobbling, but not severely, on an injured right leg. I feel less pathos for the bird than I did when I saw it yesterday because it is no worse. It gets a bite of a dead fish so it’s eating. We watch carefully and soon the gull flies off. This guy, because it can fly, isn’t a good candidate to be rescued.

In the gulf there’s some splashing and dark blue areas of water. Soon enough the smooth, dark gray backs of bottle-nosed dolphins are coming out of the water, with numerous fins showing. Once those fins face us like submarine towers. How many dolphins are there? Two are together but about 20 yards ahead of them is a solitary dolphin. Is it a dad leading the way for mom and child?

At the south end of this strip of Whitney Beach and Beer Can Island that I call Whit-Can Beach, I reach a seawall. Starting to walk back, out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of movement. Not far away is a small form just slightly darker than the sand. Taking a tentative step I see a tan leg and two round dark marble eyes that stand out like antennae. It’s a ghost crab, aptly named because the one-and-a-half-inch crustacean can cause you to blink your eyes as it disappears into a barely visible sand hole.

I started out the morning looking at the sky and feeling like a speck in the universe. Now the morning is ending with me looking at a tiny hole in the sand. Perhaps being a speck is relative. And in between there have been some dolphins, lots of interesting birds and a sense of perspective. All good reasons to spend New Year’s Day morning walking Whit-Can Beach.

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