Birds make a splash on Whit-Can Beach

A royal tern in summer plumage. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A sedate-looking lesser black-backed gull. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A reddish egret on Beer Can Island. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A peregrine falcon that I took on Beer Can Island. Check out the “mutton chop” and that eye. CREDIT: Michael Givant

A moving mass of shorebirds or “peeps.” CREDIT: Michael Givant

Contributing Columnist

“Whit-Can Beach,” a strip that runs from Whitney Beach to Beer Can Island, was particularly rich with bird life at the end of February and the beginning of March. Here’s what it looked like on two of those days.

Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012

10:21 a.m.: At the tip of Beer Can Island, flying above a sand spit, there’s a royal tern with a fish dangling from its yellow-orange bill. The tern has probably just plucked it from the gulf. Suddenly the royal drops its catch but amazingly snatches it back in midair. And just like that the fish is gone, seemingly swallowed, and the tern flies on. Talk about eating on the run!

10:30 a.m.: There’s an explosion of white in the air. I involuntarily flinch. When things settle there are 18 white ibises on the sand. They must have flown over the mangroves from where they nest. The tall white birds walk in shallow water probing the sands below with their long, down-curved, Lifebuoy soap-colored bills for tiny coquina shells.

On Whitney Beach there is no usual mass of gulls, terns, skimmers and shorebirds, which I call the “assembled multitude.” They are all in the air, flying parallel to the beach. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about this, as the birds do it frequently during the day, often without warning and for no apparent reason.

Further down the beach are two hundred “peeps” or LBJs, meaning little brown jobs. Nearest are sanderlings, plump sandpipers with brown shoulders, bright white breasts and bellies. Their legs move seemingly with the speed of sewing machine needles as they race after retreating waves, then probe the soaked sand for morsels.

There are ruddy turnstones in a bright rust color with a black “oxbow” pattern on their white breasts. True to their name the turnstones turn over leaves, shells, weeds or anything, looking for food. In a dark, fluid mass are a hundred red knots in their dull brown and white winter plumage. If one looks carefully, an outline of light brown dots may be seen on their breasts, remnants of their rust-colored summer plumage.

With the wind and crashing waves, the beach resembles a wild coast. The tide has left a long line of green and red weed. There’s a lone lesser black-backed gull, an uncommon European visitor in winter. The bird has a charcoal gray back, yellow legs and a distinctive red spot on the front of its lower mandible. Standing near some of the weed, the gull leans over and appears to be eating a piece of sea “sponge” material. The tide may wait for no man, but it delivers for this gull.

Saturday, March 1, 2012

9 a.m.: A northern gannet, another uncommon winter visitor, is off shore. This bird has a six-foot wingspan and dives into the water in an arrow-like fashion. Then it lifts off the surface, makes a wide circle and again dives in. It’s difficult to determine if the bird gets anything because gannets swallow small fish underwater. The bird then flies away.

10 a.m.: On Beer Can Island my wife and I stand in the shadow of a bare ash-colored tree. A raptor flies quickly to an adjacent tree’s branch. Nine times out of 10, out here it would be an osprey. But this is the 10th time. It’s a peregrine falcon, which is rare here in winter. This raptor is avian royalty. The black “muttonchops” on the sides of its face give it a dark look, and combined with the blue gray body this raptor has a chilling appearance. The peregrine can dive at 200 mph and takes prey in mid air. For this reason, it was once nicknamed the “bullet hawk.” Those it knocks to the ground may have their spinal cord severed by a special notch called a “tomial tooth” on the bird’s bill.

With my camera I gingerly approach the tree hoping not to scare off the peregrine. I’ve seen a few out here in prior years, and they have not usually been scared off by a human’s presence. Tense, I get five shots and some confidence. Coming back to where my wife is standing I want another shot. However when I look up, the peregrine has gone.

12:23 p.m.: I’m on Beer Can looking at a dark heron that is too small to be a great blue. What is it? A little blue? A tricolored? Getting my binocs on it, my mouth falls open. It’s a reddish egret, Florida’s least common heron. Nearly hunted to extinction for its plumes in the early 20th century, the reddish is making a slow comeback with an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 nesting pairs in the United States. Because it nearly went extinct, I call it “eternity’s bird,” and for that reason it excites me like no other. This bird is avian nobility.

The egret appears to be waiting for a possible fisherman’s throwaways. Certainly not a magisterial way to behave, but a bird’s gotta eat. In the bright afternoon sun the luminous pink half of the egret’s bill appears to have reddish stripes like a peppermint candy cane. When the egret turns, the bill seems to have ridges. The eye is a pale yellow with a black center. The washed-out, rust-colored breeding plumes hang from the egret’s breast like a woman’s frilly wrap. Just then a little girl comes along with her father and stops and looks at the bird. The reddish starts to walk, then lifts off and flies over the lagoon.

I start walking home, still on a high from the reddish egret. I don’t recall seeing anything notable on the way back. But after what I’ve seen in the past few days, if it didn’t make a big splash, the bird wasn’t on my radar screen.

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