Swept away on Whit-Can Beach

A great blue heron with a “to go” meal on Beer Can Island. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A stealthy great egret on Whitney Beach. CREDIT: Michael Givant

An immature little blue heron at Quick Point — in this phase they are actually white. CREDIT: Michael Givant

See how well snowy plovers birds blend in on Whitney Beach. CREDIT: Michael Givant

Contributing Columnist

There are times while birding that I’ve really gotten caught up in the moment. This last happened on a cold, windy Saturday morning this January. While walking Whit-Can Beach, a strip that runs from Whitney Beach to Beer Can Island, I was swept away by a group of 1.4-ounce birds.

On Beer Can Island I walk between some trees to a lagoon where there’s no 15 mph wind and it’s warmer than on the beach. Removing the hood of my sweatshirt from my head and taking my hands from my pockets I see a great blue heron, a great egret and a wood stork in the water. The first two are common out here but not the wood stork, which is on the endangered species list.

The wood stork’s size, long down-curved bill and knobby black head is an attention getter. With its bill partially submerged, the 40-inch bird nicknamed “gourdhead” paws the water with either long, gray leg to raise prey, which are often small fish. The bird’s method of “grope-feeding” is to keep its long down-curved bill submerged and partially open, moving it from side to side. When it touches something, the bill can snap shut in an astonishing 25 milliseconds.

I follow the curve of bone white sand to Beer Can’s tip and then return to the lagoon. A tricolored heron, a little blue heron and a snowy egret, all fishing-eating waders, have joined the original three. The elegant snowy is in breeding plumage but it’s the wood stork that interests me. It is now feeding with its bill submerged to its base, suggesting that the feeding must be very good. This bird requires a lot of food. It is estimated that during the breeding season, a pair needs to consume approximately 440 pounds of fish to sustain themselves and fledge their young. This one is too far out for a really good look at how it feeds, so I continue back down the beach.

The snowy plover is a 6.25-inch beach bird that looks smaller. Nicknamed the “Cuban snowy plover,” the bird is as pale as the sand with which it blends perfectly. This bird can seem to magically appear when standing by small depressions that have bits of wood, shells and other beach detritus. When one scurries across the sands, the eye cannot long keep up with it. When I’ve seen these birds before, there have been only one or two. Now there are six in front of me. They are standing near the water by some bits of weed that are green and red. They have some dark markings on the head, face and/or neck that indicate that these snowys are in breeding plumage. One is tagged on its left leg.

I’m surprised that birds, which are perfectly camouflaged, would stand by some reddish weed that might catch someone’s eye. They aren’t running off and I watch them, with their backs to the incoming waves, peck at the sand with their dark, thin bills. Never before having seen them feed, I closely watch. With the bill partially open at the base, they peck two or three times quickly. They do not dig. After a while I’m watching only two snowys as the others have left. I carefully note the spot and continue walking.

I’m back less than a half-hour later. Again there are six here. All are scurrying on the glistening wet sand, and I continue watching them feed. They use what is referred to as a “run-pause-run-peck” method of feeding. They eat crustaceans, insects and marine worms. One is having a minimalist birdbath in the water barely up to its belly, beating its wings, which are held close to its body, while dipping its bill. Its white breast and belly seem impervious to drops of water. I don’t even bother wondering how it can stand the cold.

I’ve been out two and a half hours barely taking the hood off my head because of the weather. It’s really time to go home. But something about that spare birdbath gets me. Caught up in the moment I don’t so much make a decision to follow the six snowy plovers, as somewhat reluctantly, I fall into it. I’m going to continue following them for a while longer. The birds have become my day. I’ve got no more than what I need: my hooded sweatshirt, binoculars, water, a pad and a pen. Like the bird’s bath, this too is minimalist.

The clouds partly hide the sun, which glints off the water. There’s the breeze and the din of the waves. It’s all here. It’s lovely, It’s birding. Freedom is being an 11-year-old at heart and having the time to be one. Coming back from Beer Can Island a second time, I’m birded out. The weather has warmed somewhat, the tide is further out and the sky has some pebbly clouds. There are a few mounds of wet sand between the beach water and the sea, which I refer to as “whale’s backs,” as they resemble ones just breaking the surface. Some scene. This truly is fertile ground for being seduced by birds.

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