Rare birds seen off Whitney Beach

Snowy Egret

Contributing Writer

It’s a quiet Sunday morning on Whitney Beach with hardly a cloud in the sky; the temperature is warm and the wind gentle. The tide is out and the beach is covered with red/green weed. A large group of royal, sandwich and Forster’s terns, laughing and ring-billed gulls and some shorebirds that I call the “assembled multitude” is by the water’s edge and another smaller group is further up the beach.

My wife and I walk out to Beer Can Island, where we haven’t been able to go for two weeks because of the tide. A few turkey vultures are flying low to treetops and I stop to admire their pewter colored wing pattern. Back on Whitney Beach there are a few black-bellied plovers, the largest North American plovers, whose bellies in winter are actually white. We were hoping to see some snowy plovers and/or a Wilson’s plover by a large tidal pool, but none are out.

Later in the morning I see an unfamiliar black and white bird in the water but it quickly goes under. What is it? My answer comes from a woman walking quickly toward me. She asks if I was the one who told her about the razorbill. It wasn’t me but I’ve now got a good idea of what this unfamiliar bird is. She shows me a drawing in a field guide and when the bird surfaces I can match up some of the field guide’s characteristics with the bird. It does look like a razorbill but is soon gone. I look for it a while but disappointingly nothing shows.

Assuming that this is a razorbill it’s a long way from its normal winter southern most range. How far? The southernmost winter range of these 17-inch birds is Long Island and New Jersey. They are rarely found below the mid-Atlantic States.  A range map that I looked at showed them to be rare in Florida and that was on the Atlantic Coast not the Gulf Coast. Only one such map showed anything for Florida’s Gulf Coast. This is indeed a rare bird.

By the beach’s south end there’s a snowy egret, whose nickname is “golden slippers” because of its black legs and yellow feet, at the water’s edge. The heron has a crab in its bill hanging by a thread, or more accurately, a slender leg. The bird alternates between trying to swallow the crab whole and trying to get a better grip on it. Repeatedly dipping its bill in the water, the egret perhaps is attempting to lubricate it and ease the crustacean down its throat. This struggle goes on and I wonder why the bird doesn’t take the crab to dry sand and peck it apart.

Just then the snowy drops the crab into the water and it looks as if it is carried away by an outgoing white wave but the bird gets it back. It’s got better eyesight than I. After a while the crab, firmly in the egret’s bill, is suddenly no longer there. The snowy’s throat moves as if it has just swallowed a meal. The egret flies onto the sea wall where a young fisherwoman tosses it what appear to be two small baitfish, which the elegant bird dispatches as if they were hors d’oeuvres.

The snowy was a treat but the razorbill is still on my mind and I’m sure I’ve seen the last of it. The day has become partly cloudy and the light slightly diminished. It’s the kind of morning one can walk a beach in pure delight. I start to do so but my reverie is happily interrupted by the appearance, not far off shore, of a razorbill. I step further into the water and put my binoculars on it. This is the first time I’ve seen one and I want to note every characteristic I can. Large black and white head, thick bill somewhat raised on the front of the upper mandible, white throat, black back with curved white line and black pattern bordering on white throat and breast. Just then I think I see a second razorbill. Am I hallucinating? No there’s one on either side of a brown pelican. Just then a couple asks me what bird is out there. Two I tell them. One says that the bird doesn’t fly but has paddled parallel to them for two miles. One says that they look like penguins and indeed they do bear a resemblance.

My eyes are riveted to the birds that dive quickly and hard, their bills going into the water almost straight down. Once I even hear a plop. One goes under in a gaggle of partially outstretched wings and its raised tail. They don’t dive with the suppleness of cormorants or the ease of loons. However they use their wings to “fly’ beneath the water where the majority of their feeding takes place at about 25 meters.

When they surface I can see the wet areas on their black backs.  Again I note that there is a curved white line across those backs that may be the trailing edge of their folded wings. The black feathers forward of that line resemble a short coat. The upper mandible has a hooked tip. One of the pair has its bill partly open. One rears up like a loon but appears to have shorter wings. The two join up but separate and then they slowly paddle north. One disappears leaving the other to slowly paddle with its head partially submerged. The last I see of it is heading around the rocks to Beer Can Island.

In the following days I hear that the razorbills have been seen on Anna Maria Island, in Venice and here again on Whitney Beach. I’m keeping my camera handy. I want a good shot of this northern bird visiting Gulf Coast waters.


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