Photo opportunity on Beer Can Island

A brown pelican just off Beer Can Island. Man, is that a beauty!

The reddish egret, eternity’s bird, on Beer Can Island.

A snowy egret nicknamed “golden slippers” for its yellow feet, which are hidden in the water.

Check out the bill and eyes of this oystercatcher.

Contributing Columnist

It’s the last full day on LBK for my wife and me this winter. Hoping for some last-minute bird pictures, I take my camera.

On Whitney Beach there are a large number of black specks on the horizon coalescing into a straight horizontal line. The bills and wingspan readily identify them as brown pelicans. These gawky looking birds are really agile fliers and show it, as 30 of them veer to the right in a synchronized movement. Nice.

In a few minutes, a fast-flying great blue heron comes in low over the sands. As the gray bird’s wings beat, I marvel at how close its wingtips come to the sand without touching it. How can they judge small distances so well?

Walking north I get to the rocks by the units that mark the gateway to Beer Can Island. The tide is touching them, but it’s shallow and I walk past. Out where fallen gray trees with huge upturned root systems lay, there are a few fishermen. Four great blues, alert to the possibility of “throwaways” from them, are nearby. Occasionally the herons rise up and fly a few feet, chasing one another and looking somewhat comical in doing so. These are territorial disputes to see who will be closest for a “throwaway.” The fishermen get two keepers and the blues must wait a while longer.

Two oystercatchers are digging into the shallow water for clamshells. I’ve seen these striking uncommon birds so often since the beginning of the year that I have gotten blasé about them. However this morning I take a last admiring look at their thick red bills and yellow eyes rimmed with red. Look at that one dig deep up to the base of its bill and using the top of its head too! I hope they’ll be here next winter.

Nearby are two red-breasted mergansers, diving ducks. They are very close to shore wrapped in the shallow waves that break on it. Sometimes they paddle on the surface showing their bright orange bills and the combs on their heads. Other times they dive and I can only follow their blurry brown form beneath the light green water. Constantly in motion, the mergansers don’t allow for a decent shot. Frustrating.

Close by is a snowy egret, an elegant, lithe white heron with black legs and yellow feet. One has been out here all winter. It’s now in the water feeding and those yellow feet, which give the bird the nickname “golden slippers,” aren’t visible. I manage to get some good profile shots of the bird sans the feet.

There’s a slow-paddling brown pelican with a dark, rust-colored neck and white head, suggesting it is a new parent. It’s good to see the healthy brown pelly. During the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, these birds, when seen in the media, were often tragically caked with bronze-colored oil. This bird’s size, closeness and slowness allow me to get a number of quality shots. Thank you and please breed prodigiously!

To my eye-opening surprise there is a reddish egret within 15 feet of me. This is about the eighth time this winter I’ve seen Florida’s least common heron but not this close and never with a camera in my hands. This bird excites me like no other. Nearly hunted to extinction in the United States for its plumes at the beginning of last century, the reddish egret once almost belonged to eternity. Now it is making a slow comeback with an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 nesting pairs in the United States.

The egret is seemingly in a hurry to go nowhere, and I slowly get down on a knee in the water and start snapping pics. I’m looking for the closest shot and the best angle. However I’m not looking at its rust-colored breast and head, its gray body and two-toned black and pink bill. I’m also not looking at its behavior or appreciating it for what it is, a truly uncommon bird and a survivor. For this I reproach myself, but it’s a prize for my camera so I forgive myself and click away.

A few people nearby, probably not familiar with the bird, stare at it. I notice that up close with my camera it doesn’t seem as beautiful as it does from a distance. It feels like I’ve been photographing the bird for a long time. In reality it stays only about six minutes before flying. As the reddish rises above the sand, I’m actually glad that it is leaving. There was poor fishing for it here, and I didn’t want to cheapen this bird by simply taking pics of it.

I walk back feeling fulfilled and wonder what the photos of the reddish will look like. I was hoping for some pics this morning but never dreamed of this. The best was truly saved for last. Approaching the rocks at the bottleneck, I wonder if the water will be high and the waves hard. However, there are only a few dicey steps, otherwise the water is shallow with no hard waves. I don’t look back nor wonder if Beer Can will be accessible next winter, as I’m still high from the reddish egret.

At home looking through my pictures I’m surprised to see I’ve taken two-dozen shots of the reddish. I cull them, keeping only a dozen. I want only the best; this bird deserves nothing less.

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