Whit-Can Beach is bird-rich

A willet resting on the sand — quite a bill.

A chick-feeding adult brown pelican.

A red-breasted merganser off Beer Can Island.

A ruddy turnstone patrolling the water.

A ruddy turnstone snacking on fish on Whit-Can Beach.

Contributing Columnist

Whit-Can Beach is a strip that runs from Whitney Beach to Beer Can Island that I walked almost every morning last winter. When I went out I never knew what I’d see and sometimes found surprises.

With winter in its last month the morning the sky over Whitney Beach has a long line of gray clouds that are breaking up on the horizon. There are three or four bottle-nosed dolphins in the Gulf thrashing about, frolicking and kicking up white water. Twice I see faces and the eye of one and other times I see a tail or fluke. Smooth gray backs rise from and fall into the water. Two surface simultaneously, their backs crest then go back under. Almost two hours later at the south end of the beach, more dolphins are close to shore. Six more times I see a small gray tail fin come out of the water, slap it hard then harder. This display doesn’t happen often.

With the show ending I see some movement out of the corner of my eye. On the sand, a pile of dried weed is being lifted. But by what? By a ruddy turnstone. This partially rust colored 9.5-inch sandpiper has a short slightly upturned bill that is used to turn over everything on the beach in search of food. A few days later at the seawall I find two busy turnstones doing the improbable. Both are in the shade of a small opening in the sea wall rapidly turning over shells. One walks out into the sun while the other remains turning over tiny shells. That they can forage in such a small opening is intriguing.

At the north end of the beach there are two hundred black skimmers. By the Gulf a large number of them are in the air for their usual “exercise.” Often, for no apparent reason, they rise up, fly out over the water and come back to where they were on the sand. Over the beach more are in the air, their sleek black wings spread and flapping with the white edges showing. I’ve been under this “canopy” many times before but never do I remember so many birds so close that they resemble the outline of an open parachute. As some of the birds land followed slowly by others the “chute” seems to be slowly collapsing as it might when a person is landing. I watch with wonder, as they all come down.

Willets are 15-inch sandpipers. They often feed in shallow water using their long bills to pluck tiny white shells from the sand. While several may feed in the same area, these nondescript brown birds are solitary feeders. I’ve never seen them feed collectively nor attempt to take away a shell from another. One morning three willets have formed a tight triangle and are driving their bills into the wet sand. This is no dance. One comes up with a small shell for which they were all aiming. I don’t get a good look at the shell and as they leave I’m not really sure who got it because of the smallness of the shell and the speed at which the action occurred. However I’ve never seen this kind of competitive behavior among these birds before. I thought I knew these willets really well but do I really?

Mottled ducks have yellowish bills, speckled breasts and have appeared on the beach in March during the last few years. Four or five are in the water and two are flying. However two adults and a slightly smaller one are the strangest sight. The smaller one’s body is submerged and the nearest adult, using its bill, is repeatedly pushing the head of what I presume to be a juvenile, under water. Is this infanticide, tough love or training for the younger bird? The adult lets go and repeatedly the smaller bird dips its head into the water. If it’s training, it’s working.

Another March morning on Beer Can Island I’m watching what I believe is an immature bald eagle, a very rare visitor out here. In a bare gray tree it looks like a Northwest Indian totem carving. The bird leaves but comes back within a ten-minute period. Just then I see a flotilla of 51 ducks. They are red-breasted mergansers, diving ducks that take fish underwater. They have backward facing “teeth,” which are actually horny projections that help them hold fish in the bill. For this reason, the red-breasted merganser is nicknamed “sawbill.” There are only four males in the group the rest are females and immature birds. Just then a brown pelican lands among a few birds in the front. Perhaps the pelly thinks they will shortly be finding food and he’d like to be at the front of the cafeteria line.

The mergansers disappear out of sight leaving me with a sense of satisfaction, as this is the first flock of them that I’ve seen all winter. I continue walking along Beer Can’s curved shoreline not thinking about anything. My feet go in and out of shallow water; the ridged sand below feels so good. I’m not looking at any birds because at this moment being here is its own reward.


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