When birding turns spiritual on Beer Can Island

Contributing Writer

The stretch of beach that encompasses Whitney Beach and Beer Can Island has a large number of birds that I see almost every day during the winter. I often notice small details or nuanced behavior, which charms me or makes me wonder. It’s then that birding becomes more than an exercise in identification but a spiritual activity. Here are some of those moments.

A Bloody Meal

Saturday, 1:13 PM: It’s afternoon on Beer Can Island. A fisherman throws a fat pinfish to a waiting great egret that takes it in his bill and carries it to a nearby spot. This is not going to be an easy meal. The fish is between 6-9-inches in length, wide top to bottom and has “spines.” The egret shows dexterity in placing the fish along its javelin-like yellow bill with the head facing the bird’s throat. The egret’s bill is soon stained with the fish’s blood. Several times the fish is dropped or nearly dropped but in the end is held in the bill as if the bird was wielding a large pair of chopsticks. The yellowish green color at the base of the bill merges with the fish’s blood.

For a short time the fish is held crosswise in the bill, its eye showing as if it were modeling for a still life painting. Now the fish’s head is facing the bird’s mouth with the “spines” sticking up. It won’t be long now. Before the struggle can conclude however another great egret comes and chases the egret with the fish in its bill. I think that this will be a long struggle. Wrong. The fish caked in sand and blood is being swallowed. The egret’s throat seems a little wider as the fish goes down. Two years later when reading over a draft of this article I can still picture the moment. Why? It’s about the primeval beauty of color in nature’s long running drama of survival.

Leaving No Trace

Tuesday morning: On Whitney Beach there are two willets, large sandpipers, flying over the water, their white wing pattern flashing in the morning sun. What is it about the loud call of a streaking willet, which has just taken off that gets me every time I hear it? I’d like to listen to it for a longer time and to know what that sound means.

Minutes later there are what appear to be three bottle-nosed dolphins that seem to be going in opposite directions. There’s one by itself and two others together. As they appear to be going both forward and sideward a short tail fin comes out of the water and whitish sides are showing. Then they are gone. The water’s surface is smooth, not even showing a clue that they were just here. There’s only the din of the waves and some tall grass blowing in a slight breeze.

 Dowdy Blues 

Thursday morning: On Beer Can Island a scruffy looking great blue walks to the water its neck elongated and its head and bill pointed skyward. This isn’t momentary. With its head in that position, it walks partially into the water and then parallel to shore. Its wings are held slightly away from its body. I focus binoculars on the bird’s yellow eye, which is facing me. I don’t think it cares about my presence and I haven’t any idea about what it’s doing. There’s a strong breeze whistling in my ears. The sea is green and there’s a hue of dark blue where it meets the otherwise light blue horizon. Nice color contrast; nice moment.

Saturday morning: On Beer Can Island seven white ibises are standing in the water feeding. A few minutes later all but two are in the air flapping hard. Above the trees the black tips of their white wings are showing as they fly toward a steel gray cloud on the horizon. Better feeding where you’re going?

There’s a dowdy great blue on the beach facing the water as if it were waiting for a fisherman to toss it a throwaway. The blue lifts up and is flying directly toward me. Its long bill and longer wings are at an odd angle. I don’t like the looks of that bill but the bird turns right and lands directly facing the ocean. It’s in my path not far in front of me. Does it think I’m a fisherman? Minutes later I again pass the dowdy great blue. Facing neck, its belly and me are streaked a moderate brown. The blue stares straight ahead. I still don’t like that lance-like bill and move quickly past it.

 Silent Talk

There’s a black-bellied plover in shallow water The tall plover, whose belly in its winter plumage is actually white, bends over and with its short dark bill gets a whole shell and downs it. This is one of the very few times I’ve seen this plover eat. Most of the time they walk around seemingly indifferent to feeding. I look at its dark brown back with areas that look like tiny black semicircles. Are those the remnants of summer when the plover’s back and belly are black?

Silently I talk to the bird. I haven’t seen you in summer for years and years. What did you actually look like years ago when I first saw you on Cape Cod beaches? Suddenly the black-belly lifts off. As it does the tail fans out white. Nice view. Where are you going? Two years later, writing this, I can still feel the words resonate within me. That’s what I mean about birding being spiritual.



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