Highlights from a birding class

Check out that yellow bill tip, which looks like it was dipped in mustard, on this sandwich tern.

A great blue heron on Beer Can Island has just nabbed some lunch. You can see the intensity in its blazing yellow eye and tightly held bill. CREDIT: Michael Givant

An oystercatcher digs for shells. Check out that bill and that yellow eye rimmed with red. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A royal tern morphs into summer plumage. Whatta bill! CREDIT: Michael Givant

Check out the bill and those legs on this white ibis. CREDIT: Michael Givant

Contributing Columnist

This February I taught a birding class at the Longboat Key Education Center where we went on three field trips in and around LBK. As birds don’t have schedules, don’t phone, email or text where they’ll be in advance, you never know what you are going to see. Here are some highlights from those birding walks.


Too much to see
On a walkout at Durante Park, quickly approaching overhead is what looks like an osprey. However ospreys don’t have white heads and yellow bills. It’s a bald eagle! Soon a large bird with pinkish or light red sides comes directly overhead. This can only be a roseate spoonbill, which isn’t offering a view of its gray Dixie Cup, spoon-shaped bill. However it’s the second uncommon bird we’ve seen already. Things are looking up.

At another walkout there are several ospreys hunting for fish in Sarasota Bay. One plunges toward the water but at the last second pulls up. The group groans in frustration. Then another dive is similarly scrapped. It’s a tough life being an osprey. Dives are aborted and when they occur ospreys often come up with empty claws.

Soon an osprey goes into the water and it gets something but we cannot see what. The osprey flaps hard but cannot rise. I wonder if it has latched onto a sheepshead porgy that is too heavy with which to fly. I’m also wondering if the raptor can extract its claws from the fish. In a minute or two the “fish-hawk” lifts off “empty-handed.” Soon another raptor goes into the water. This one comes up with a more manageable catch and carries it off, probably to a tree where it can have its breakfast.

In the meantime there are four bottle-nosed dolphins relatively close that are showing their smooth gray backs and fins. A woman says that there’s so much that she can’t see it all! Music to my ears. This isn’t neat and orderly birding but rather real birding and what a group should be seeing. Later as we are approaching a clearing, another woman spots Florida’s least common heron, a reddish egret. It gives us a good view and gets a fish to boot. Whatta morning!


Thievery and elegance
The next week at the Bay Walk on Leffis Key, sightings aren’t as hectic. By a tidal pond, sharp-eyed Roger spots a male red-bellied woodpecker, which has an anole in its bill. Bon appétit. At a walkout we watch a patient great blue standing near a fisherman in waders. That patience is “rewarded” by having a fish stolen out from under its “nose” by an aggressive brown pelican. We see another brown pelican continuously expand its huge pouch like it was trying to swallow but can’t.

As we are leaving Roger again spots a prize. It’s a little blue heron on a mangrove in the water. The little blue has probably already eaten and is preening itself. Its back is a slate blue, which turns into a dark purple on its head and flows into a gray bill. In the morning sun the color transitions appear seamless. Elegance personified. Nearby is a partially hidden heron, which after some sleuthing turns out to be a green heron. A surprising and truly nice end to the walk.


Hundreds of birds
Our last trip is to Whitney Beach. That morning The Weather Channel is saying there’s a 30 percent chance of rain. On the beach there’s a gray sky, warm temperatures and an expanse of birds on the sand. There are at least a few hundred birds of which approximately 150 are black skimmers. Their bills have a unique feature. The lower mandible is longer than the upper, which is used to skim the water for aquatic prey.

There are tons of royal terns whose outstanding feature is a dagger-like, yellow-orange bill. There are Forster’s terns, with red legs and a black arrowhead-shaped patch over their eyes. There are also sandwich terns whose black bills have a tiny yellow tip as if they have been dipped in mustard. A few ring-billed gulls can be seen as well.

This assembled multitude suddenly lifts off but comes right back and later does again for an encore. Watching the group watch the birds is like watching a live National Geographic special. I’ve seen this spectacle dozens of times but wonder what it’s like for those seeing it for the first time.

At the water’s edge are feeding sandpipers: willets, red knots and sanderlings. There were also a few oystercatchers whose bold black-and-white pattern, thick red bill and yellow and red eye are eye-catching. To people relatively new to birding the different variety of species, all in the same place, can be confusing. However looking at some through my high-powered birding scope brings an eye-opening colorful view.

After an hour-plus the sun comes out, and with the heat and humidity there’s little reason to stay. I had promised anyone who was interested that if the tide cooperated we could do an extracurricular walk out to Beer Can Island. The intrepid that go, see white ibises, great blue herons hidden in plain sight next to gray mangrove sticks, a few colorful ruddy turnstones and one black-bellied plover in its winter plumage in which its belly is actually white.

Just as we are about to get off the beach, someone spots a mystery bird among some willets and red knots. Stymied by its partially pink bill, I’m unable to identify it but note the characteristics, especially those of the bill. At home I consult several field guides and a Sarasota Audubon publication. There’s no doubt about it, the mystery bird is a marbled godwit, rare here in winter. I’m thrilled as it’s the first time I’d ever seen this species. As I always tell a class, you never know what you’re going to see.

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